What if fallen angels were real and they spent their time just screwing with people while waiting for Armageddon to happen? That’s probably the worst way to describe 1998’s Fallen, a suspenseful supernatural thriller that couldn’t quite take flight at the theaters, but became somewhat of an underground cult classic—in time.
In Philadelphia, famed serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas) is meeting his supposed end in the gas chamber, and the man who caught him, Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington), is there to witness it. After a strange interaction, some mumbo jumbo, and a few veiled threats, the audience gets their first hint of what is actually going on in Fallen, as something escapes the dying man. There’s little time to celebrate, as just when the hero cops thought they had put another one on the board for the good guys, a new string of murders with the same patterns are happening. It isn’t long before the bodies are stacking up again, the mystery begins to unravel, and the detective realizes that he’s being stalked by someone who can possess almost anyone he touches.
It’s easy to get caught up in this plot once the pieces fall into place and to keep thinking about it long after the movie ends. I found myself wanting to know more about this world, the people who know about demons and track them, and why some people are resistant to touch but not to the “breath.” Some think it’s because Hobbes was too pure, which is backed up in part by him talking about how he wouldn’t take a bribe early on in the film, but he doesn’t come across as much more moral or righteous than the average person. It gives Azazel some extra personality as the film’s villain that he targets Hobbes so furiously simply because he couldn’t possess the hero like he could others. Good to see that even immortal former angelic beings can be petty dicks. A long-term goal is established, the fall of Babylon and an ensuing apocalypse, but that’s the big picture while this movie focuses on this small beef between an immortal and a stubborn man he wants to destroy systematically. There could have easily been a sequel or spinoff, as there is plenty of material present, even if not with any of these characters.
The acting is a huge attractor in Fallen. Washington is doing solid work and though it isn’t his best role, most won’t have any trouble liking Hobbes and feeling his plight. The scenes with his brother, Art, who seems mentally challenged in the movie, are almost touching at points. Fallen also features John Goodman, who is excellent as always, especially when he gets to do more near the end, James Gandolfini plays the asshole co-worker, but shows off some undeniably fun quirks, along with Embeth Davidtz and Donald Sutherland who help round out a stellar cast. Many of these people get to show some range, even though it’s the quiet and subtle moments that beg to be noticed, and hey, most of them get to sing at some point.
Hopefully, no one lets their distaste for The Rolling Stones keep them away from Fallen, as it’s a film that changes the way some people perceive the song Time is on my Side. The scene where everyone is singing it to Hobbes in the police station is genuinely a bit creepy and it’s hard to ignore Elias Koteas’ passion when he belts the tune out. And how could they do a movie about a malicious demon who taunts his prey without including Sympathy for the Devil? It would have been a missed opportunity otherwise. There’s some Beck in there though for anyone needing a track that’s a little more fun.
The genre, tone, and themes within Fallen are all layered and mixed together almost. In some ways, the film attempts to do too much, but even with having all of these different elements present it never lingers too long or too far into something that could have bogged it down more. Dealing with demons, it would have been easy to add more horror elements, but the suspense and tension of not knowing, being outgunned, and fear of what someone with that sort of power can do is way more impressive. How can he trust anyone?
Early on, there is a scene that might be considered very ‘pro-cop’ with how Hobbes presents his fellow officers, saying that even the corrupt cops are out there doing more good than the average person each day, and the film demonstrates how wrong he was about his solidarity when they all begin suspecting him, thinking that it must be another cop performing this new set of killings, and all of them inherently become his enemies, possessed or not. All of the ‘good cops’ here don’t make it.
It’s established early on how vulnerable everyone in Hobbes’ life is and the sense of hopelessness grips the audience–it sticks. The mystery and historical angles are engaging and intersect with the religious aspect, but there’s no need to dive too deeply into all that, in the end, this is still between Azazel and Hobbes. Fallen is a biblical thriller, almost like The Prophecy (1995) or Stigmata (1999), but it stays more grounded in comparison and narrows the scope. Director Gregory Hoblit knew when to pull back on the music and humor and what scenes needed a moment to sink in.
It’s hard to talk about this one without discussing the ending, but Fallen is celebrating its 25-year anniversary, so spoilers it is. The film has what some might call a depressing ending, but that’s only because the bad guy wins. The beginning narration tells the audience what happened, but without prior information, this conclusion hits a lot harder. Honestly, it felt like Azazel should have been victorious, he’s a fallen angel, older, smarter, and Hobbes didn’t have all of the information, so he was doomed from the start, no matter how much we wanted him to succeed.
So close though…
Some people really do not like this ending, however, either because it’s a huge downer or they didn’t feel that the three or four hints as to what is going to happen justified the twist. While researching this and looking at other reviews, I noticed that some didn’t even catch one of the clues, so maybe there’s something to that. The movie suffered many mixed reviews with critics feeling that there was a lot of heart and potential, but that it should have stuck to one genre, but for me, that’s what made it unique and stand out in some otherwise easy-to-ignore selections.
Not enough people saw Fallen, even if it was totally worth it. Reviews were most likely one factor, but it was also caught in the wake of Titanic’s historic run in theaters, which hurt, even if it was several weeks in. The movie can be a little slow in parts, but I propose that the invested 120 minutes is worth it.
I was also glad that the movie didn’t try to force a romantic relationship between Hobbes and Gretta Milano, but apparently, that was added to the film’s novelization. This book doesn’t vary too much from what I saw, but it does expand on some of the story details, at least slightly, and may be worth it for hardcore fans.
Visually, Fallen holds up well. Part of that is because the nature of the demon’s powers didn’t require a lot of special effects. Most of what is done is with camera tricks or filters, and some of that does scream 90s, but the style has its own charm. You almost want to pat it on the head for not breaking out into a music video, but there are genuinely some great shots and the audience view follows the action well.
The movie still has some legs these days, as it received a bit of an homage in an episode of Marvel’s Loki series on Disney+. It also could have been a much different film, as apparently Arnold Schwarzenegger was initially approached for the starring role, but perhaps he preferred the script for End of Days (1999) more.
Fallen is an underrated film, but it isn’t going to do it for everyone. The movie isn’t quite the classic that Seven (1995) is, a feature that it very likely took inspiration from, but the added supernatural coat of paint helps this project stand on its own. Some fans compare it to The Hidden (1987) or a movie called The First Power (1990), which shares a similar plot, but between the acting and solid directing, I would still recommend that Fallen is quite worth seeking out. I think this movie will stay good, after all, it has time on its side.