Kevin Lomax, a defense attorney from Gainesville, Florida, has never lost a case when he defends a schoolteacher, Lloyd Gettys, against a charge of child molestation. Kevin suspects his client is guilty, and the local reporter Larry warns him a guilty verdict is inevitable. However, through a harsh cross-examination, Kevin destroys the victim's credibility, securing a not guilty verdict.
Afterwards, a New York City law firm appears and offers Kevin a large sum of money to assist a jury selection.
After the jury delivers a not guilty verdict, the head of the firm, John Milton, offers Kevin a large salary and an upscale apartment if he joins the firm. Kevin accepts the job, and he and his wife Mary Ann stay in Manhattan. He is soon spending most of his time at work, leaving Mary Ann feeling isolated.
When billionaire Alex Cullen is accused of murdering his wife, her stepson and a maid, Milton assigns the high-profile case to Kevin. This demands more of Kevin's time, further separating him from Mary Ann, as he begins to fantasize about his co-worker Christabella. Mary Ann begins seeing visions of the partners' wives becoming demonic, and has a nightmare about a baby playing with her removed ovaries. After a doctor declares her infertile, she begs Kevin to return to Gainesville. Milton suggests Kevin step down from the trial to tend to his wife, but Kevin claims that if he steps down and his wife recovers, he may resent her.
Eddie Barzoon, the firm's managing partner, is convinced that Kevin is competing for his job when he discovers Kevin's name is on the firm's charter. Although a surprised Kevin denies any knowledge of this, Eddie threatens to inform the United States Attorney's office of the law firm's activities. Kevin tells Milton about Eddie's threats, but Milton dismisses them. Meanwhile, Eddie is beaten to death by vagrants, who take on demonic appearances. Mary Ann witnesses this, disturbing her further.
While preparing Melissa to testify about Cullen's alibi, Kevin realizes she is lying and tells Milton he believes Cullen is guilty. Despite this, Kevin proceeds with her testimony and the trial. Afterwards, Kevin finds Mary Ann in a nearby church covered with a blanket. She claims Milton raped and brutalized her, but Kevin believes this cannot be true as he was with Milton in court. Mary Ann drops her blanket, revealing her naked body covered with cuts. Alarmed, Kevin assumes Mary Ann injured herself and commits her to a mental institution.
Alice, along with Kevin and Pam Garrety, Kevin's case manager from the firm, visit Mary Ann at the institution. After seeing Pam as a demon, Mary Ann hits her with a hand mirror and barricades the room. As Kevin breaks down the door, Mary Ann commits suicide by cutting her throat with a shard of broken glass. Alice reveals that Milton is Kevin's father. Kevin leaves the hospital to confront Milton, who admits to raping Mary Ann. Kevin fires a pistol into Milton's chest, but the bullets are ineffective. Milton reveals himself as Satan. Kevin blames Milton for everything that happened, but Milton explains that he merely "set the stage" and that Kevin could have left at any time. Kevin realizes he always wanted to win, no matter the cost. Milton tells Kevin that he wants Kevin and Christabella, Kevin's half-sister, to conceive a child, the Antichrist. Kevin appears to acquiesce at first, but then abruptly cites free will and shoots himself in the head.
Kevin finds himself back in time at the recess of the Gettys trial. Kevin announces that he cannot represent his client despite the threat of disbarment.
Afterwards, Larry pleads for an interview, promising to make Kevin a star. Encouraged by Mary Ann, Kevin agrees. After they leave, Larry transforms into Milton, relishing the sin of vanity.
The Devil character's name is a direct homage to John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost, quoted by Lomax with the line "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n". Despite this, the thrust of Milton's epic was to rebuke the devil. As a rebel against God, complaining of being perpetually "underestimated", the Milton character, like Paradise Lost's Satan, is "Heav'n running from Heav'n" with a "sense of injur'd merit".
Professor Eric C. Brown judges the climax, in which Milton attempts to persuade Lomax to have sex with his half-sister to conceive the Antichrist, to be the most "Miltonic", as the sculptures become animated in carnal activities evoking Paradise Lost's "Downfall of the Rebel Angels". The tirade Milton gives in this sequence is at times also reminiscent of Satan's lines in Paradise Lost Books I and II. In U.S. literary education, Milton's temptation of Lomax in the climax, in which he rationalizes rebellion against God for a "Look, but don't touch" model, has been compared to Satan urging Eve to eat forbidden fruit in Paradise Lost, Book IX, lines 720–730:If they all things, who enclos'd Knowledge of good and evil in this tree, That whoso eats thereof forthwith attains Wisdom without their leave? and wherein lies Th' offence, that Man should thus attain to know?
In his DVD commentary, Taylor Hackford did not name Paradise Lost as an inspiration, instead citing the legend of Faust. An underlying concept of the story is a "Faustian bargain", offered to a character with free will. Philosopher Peter van Inwagen writes Milton referring to free will as a "bitch", when Lomax contemplates selling his soul, moves away from a legalistic definition of "free will" as "uncoerced", into the philosophical realm of its definition.
As with Goethe's Faust, the Devil commonly depicted in cinema is associated with lust and temptation. Milton shows Lomax many seductive women, in order to induce his "fall". Sex or rape is usually also the means by which Satan creates the Antichrist, as in Roman Polanski's 1968 film Rosemary's Baby. In The Devil's Advocate, someone other than Satan will have sex to conceive the Antichrist, though Milton nevertheless brutally ravishes Mary Ann. Incest becomes a way of creating the Antichrist, since the offspring of Satan's son and daughter will inherit much of Satan's genetic makeup.
Dante Alighieri's Inferno raised "visual potential" that informed the film. Dantean scholar Amilcare A. Iannucci argues the plot follows the Divine Comedy model in beginning with selva oscura, in Lomax losing his conscience defending a guilty man, and then entering and exploring deeper circles of hell. Iannucci compares the office building structure to the circles, listing fireplaces where flames are always present; demonic visual phenomena; and water outside Milton's office, analogized to Dante's Satan's icy home, albeit situated at the top of hell as opposed to the bottom. Free will is also a major theme in the Divine Comedy, with the film's musings on the concept being similar to Dante's Purgatorio, 16.82–83 ("if the present world has gone astray, in you is the cause, in you it's to be sought").
Other religious references are present. In describing New York City as Babylon, Alice Lomax invokes Revelation 18:Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird!
Milton tempting Lomax is possibly also inspired by the Biblical Temptation of Christ. Aside from Milton, other character names have been commented on: Author Kelly J. Wyman matches Mary Ann, the virginal figure who falls victim to Milton, to the Virgin Mary, and adds the literal translation of Christabella is "Beautiful Christ", and that the title refers to the Catholic Church's Devil's advocates and lawyers as advocates; Eric C. Brown finds Barzoon's name and character to be reminiscent of the demon prince Beelzebub. Scholars Miguel A. De La Torre and Albert Hernández observe the vision of Satan as CEO, wearing expensive clothing and engaging in business, had appeared in popular culture before, including the 1942 novel The Screwtape Letters.
Andrew Neiderman wrote The Devil's Advocate as a novel, and it was published in 1990 by Simon and Schuster. Believing his story could be adapted into a film, Neiderman approached Warner Bros. and claimed to have led his successful sale with the synopsis "It's about a law firm in New York that represents only guilty people, and never loses".
Various screenplay adaptations of The Devil's Advocate had been pitched to U.S. cinema studios, with Joel Schumacher planned to direct it with Brad Pitt as the young lawyer. Schumacher planned a sequence in which Pitt would descend into the New York subway system, which would be modeled on the circles of hell in Dante's Divine Comedy. With no actor to play Satan, this project collapsed.
The O.J. Simpson murder trial and its controversial outcome gave new impetus to relaunching the project, with a $60 million budget. Warner hired Taylor Hackford to direct the new attempt. The director embraced the legal drama aspect, theorizing, "The courtroom has become the gladiator arena of the late twentieth century. Following the progress of a sensational trial is a spectator sport".
Tony Gilroy led much of the rewrite, with supervision by Hackford, who envisioned it as a "a modern-day morality play" and "Faustian tale". As the screenplay developed, free will became a theme, in which Milton does not actually cause events. Hackford wanted suggestions that Milton does not kill Barzoon, as he defied his muggers, or United States Attorney Weaver, who arrogantly did not watch for vehicles before stepping onto the road.
The screenwriters added the plot element that Lomax was Milton's son, and that Milton could produce the Antichrist, neither of which are in the novel. Hackford cited the films Rosemary's Baby and The Omen as influences, and both had explored the Antichrist mythology. Another change from the novel was converting the book's lesbian client to the male molester Lloyd Gettys, avoiding undertones of homophobia. In an early version of the screenplay, the "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven" quotation is given to Milton rather than Lomax.
Al Pacino had previously been offered the Devil role in attempts at adapting Neiderman's novel, but before final rewrites, rejected it on three occasions, for the cliché nature of the character. Keanu Reeves chose to star in Devil's Advocate over Speed 2, despite a promised $11 million for the sequel to his 1994 hit Speed; according to Reeves' staff, the actor was adverse to performing in two consecutive action films after Chain Reaction (1996). On Devil's Advocate, Reeves agreed to a pay cut worth millions of dollars so that the producers could meet Pacino's salary demands. To prepare for the role, Pacino watched the 1941 film The Devil and Daniel Webster and observed tips from Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch. He also read Dante's Inferno and Paradise Lost.
Connie Nielsen, a Danish actress, was selected by Hackford for Christabella, who speaks several languages, with Hackford saying Nielsen already spoke multiple languages. Craig T. Nelson, known for his television work, was cast against type in a villainous role.
Principal photography began in New York in 1996, but struggled by November. Delays were caused by the dismissals of the original cinematographer and assistant directors, while an anonymous source claimed Pacino found Hackford to be conceited and loud. An executive alleged Pacino was typically late to work, though producer Arnold Kopelson said this was not the case. Hackford later said Pacino was professional, even though his status meant he did not need to be.
Production designer Bruno Rubeo was tasked to create Milton's apartment, aiming for a "very loose and very sexy" appearance, "so you can't really tell where it goes". Hackford said on this set, he encouraged Reeves and Pacino to "feel the room" and develop some improvisation. Pacino came up with the idea of dancing to "It Happened in Monterey" by Frank Sinatra, and Hackford immediately adopted the idea.
When Lomax leaves to meet Milton, he walks through 57th Street in New York, which is abnormally devoid of people or vehicles. It was shot at the actual 57th Street, with the filmmakers having it emptied at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday. The offices were shot as the Continental Club in Manhattan, and the Continental Plaza, though the water outside Milton's office was added later by computer effects. In constructing the firm sets, Hackford and Rubeo consulted one architect from Japan and one from Italy to craft an "ultra-modern" look, to display Milton's taste. Donald Trump's penthouse in Trump Tower, Fifth Avenue was lent to the production for Alexander Cullen's residence.
A number of churches and courts hosted production. The interior of New York City's Church of the Heavenly Rest was used, for the scene where Theron's character says Milton raped her. The outside of Central Presbyterian Church was photographed for Barzoon's funeral, while Pacino was inside the Manhattan Church of the Most Holy Redeemer for the holy water sequence. For court scenes, New Jersey's Bergen County Court House was employed for production, as were historic courthouses in New York.
After the completion of the New York shoot in March 1997, production moved to Florida in July 1997. In Jacksonville, Florida, the interior of the Mrs. Howard's business in Riverside and Avondale was used for New York scenes. Its co-owner Jim Howard remodeled the store and appeared as an extra. The Gainesville church scenes were shot at an actual Gainesville church, after Hackford persuaded the pastor and his members to participate, and that his story was about combating Satan.
At the end of the film, John Milton morphs into Lucifer as a fallen angel. The crew created the effect by combining life masks depicting Reeves, Pacino in 1997 and Pacino as he appeared in his 1972 film The Godfather. The Godfather make-up artist Dick Smith supplied the life mask he made in the 1970s to Devil's Advocate artist Rick Baker, Smith's former protégé. Additionally, Baker created images for demonic faces seen on real actresses and actors, with hands also appearing moving to move underneath Tamara Tunie's body, a digital creation with the contributions of Richard Greenberg and Stephanie Powell.
Shots of ballerinas moving in water were used as a basis for Milton's animated sculpture. Special effects producer Edward L. Williams said he filmed the people for the statue effect, and that they were naked and placed in a tank next to a blue screen. It took three months to film the people and then add the computer effects, at a cost of $2 million, or 40% of the overall budget for special effects.
James Newton Howard, a past collaborator with Hackford, was tasked to write the score. Hackford dubbed over Pacino's performance of "It Happened in Monterey" with Sinatra's voice. "Paint It Black" by The Rolling Stones is also used for the film's conclusion.
During early stages of photography, Warner aspired to a release in August 1997. The film had its release on October 17, 1997, on the same day as another horror film, I Know What You Did Last Summer. To promote the release, Warner's website included the warning on hell's gate from Dante's Inferno Canto III ("Abandon every hope, ye who enter here"), with credits presented as circles of hell. The television advertising and poster were upfront as to Milton being Satan, though this is not explicitly revealed in the film itself until its later acts.
Around 475,000 copies of the VHS and DVD were produced by February 1998, but their release into the home video market was delayed pending the Hart v. Warner Bros., Inc. lawsuit. The film afterwards went into regular airings on Turner Network Television and the Turner Broadcasting System. A Blu-ray edition was released in Region A in 2012, as an "Unrated Director's Cut" in which the art in the climax previously subject to the lawsuit is digitally redone.
On its opening weekend in October 1997, The Devil's Advocate earned $12.2 million, finishing second in the U.S. box office to I Know What You Did Last Summer, which made $16.1 million. The Devil's Advocate was largely competing against thriller films aimed at youth in the Halloween season. By December 6, 1997, it grossed $56.1 million.
It ended its run on February 12, 1998 with a gross of $61 million in North America and $92 million elsewhere.
Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a rating of 66% based on 50 reviews. The site's consensus states: "Though it is ultimately somewhat undone by its own lofty ambitions, The Devil's Advocate is a mostly effective blend of supernatural thrills and character exploration." Metacritic gives the film a weighted average score of 60/100 based on reviews from 19 critics.
Roger Ebert wrote, "The movie never fully engaged me; my mind raced ahead of the plot, and the John Grisham stuff clashed with the Exorcist stuff". In The New York Times, Janet Maslin complimented the "gratifyingly light touch" of using John Milton's name, and special effects with "gimmicks well tethered to reality". David Denby wrote in New York that Devil's Advocate was "preposterously entertaining" and predicted it would get viewers debating. Entertainment Weekly gave it a B, with Owen Gleiberman declaring it "at once silly, overwrought, and almost embarrassingly entertaining", and crediting Pacino for his performance. Variety's Todd McCarthy declared it "fairly entertaining", displaying "a nearly operatic sense of absurdity and excess". Dave Kehr of New York Daily News also preferred Pacino over Reeves, assessing The Devil's Advocate as Faust moved to Manhattan, though disappointed that a "witty undercurrent becomes an exaggerated moralism". Critic James Berardinelli wrote that it "is a highly enjoyable motion picture that's part character study, part supernatural thriller, and part morality play".
In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani objected to trivializing Satan, reducing the Paradise Lost vision of War in Heaven to "an extended lawyer joke". The Christian Science Monitor's David Sterritt found it unsurprising a cinematic re-imagining of Faust would make Satan a lawyer, and recognized its message of "the need for personal responsibility", albeit with "more lascivious sex and shocking violence than a traditional 'Faust' rendition".
The film won the Saturn Award for Best Horror Film. Pacino was also nominated for the MTV Movie Award for Best Villain.
In 2014, Yahoo! named The Devil's Advocate as "Pacino's Most Underrated Film", claiming "Pacino's hammy devil never got his due" but "there's something to be said for an actor who can pull off this level of theatrics". In his 2015 Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin gave it three stars, finding Reeves credible and Pacino "delicious". Scott Mendelson wrote in Forbes in 2015 that "I love this trashy, vulgar, unapologetically puritan melodrama more than I care to admit". In 2016, The Huffington Post reported on an online debate over the possible symbolism in the costume design, as Lomax appears in suits that are light in the beginning, becoming increasingly darker as his morality slips away. The counterpoint is that this merely reflecting his increasing social status.
The film was the subject of legal action after release. The claim was that the sculpture featuring human forms in John Milton's apartment closely resembled the Ex nihilo sculpture by Frederick Hart on the facade of the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and that a scene involving the sculpture infringed Hart's rights under copyright law in the United States.
After a federal judge ruled that the film's video release would be delayed until the case went to trial unless a settlement was reached, Warner Bros. agreed to edit the scene for future releases and to attach stickers to unedited videotapes to indicate there was no relation between the art in the film and Hart's work.
Also, Hart and the National Cathedral jointly initiated the action, with an argument similar to architect Lebbeus Woods's successful lawsuit over imagery in the film 12 Monkeys. Defenses available to Warner were that the effect was designed without knowledge of Ex nihilo, or fair use.
Andrew Neiderman wrote a prequel novel by 2014, Judgment Day, about John Milton arriving to New York City and obtaining control of a major firm. Neiderman subsequently brought the book to Warner Bros. for a television series adaptation. John Wells and Arnold Kopelson unsuccessfully attempted to adapt Devil's Advocate into a series in 2014. Produced by Warner Bros. TV, Wells and Kopelson took the project to NBC for a television pilot written by Matt Venne.
A musical play based on The Devil's Advocate opened on West End theatre in 2014 with music by David Yazbek and lyrics by Neiderman. Julian Woolford also launched a stage adaptation Advocaat van de Duivel in the Netherlands, in 2015.