Written By Zak Attack
Originally I had wanted to feature the ultra-cheesy The First Power as an entry for Why Did I Watch This? during Schlocktoberfest but when Derek said he was looking to see a return of Dueling Movies, I realized these movies needed a detailed comparison.
The Tale of the Tape:
In The First Power, Lou Diamond Phillips is Russell Logan, your basic LAPD cop who doesn’t play by the rules! He has managed to take down five serial killers in his tenure as a detective, but Patrick Channing (Jeff Kober) proves to be a thorn in his side while moonlighting as The Pentagram Killer. After a tip from an alcoholic psychic, Logan catches Channing right in the middle of a satanic ritual and manages to catch the murderous wacko. Unfortunately, he breaks a promise to the psychic that he won’t seek the death penalty. Which is weird, because that’s not how arresting officers fit into the justice system. Turns out the psychic knew some things, because when Channing is killed, his spirit is afforded several powers. The most important of these powers (for comparison purposes) being the ability to possess the bodies of others at will.
In Fallen, Denzel Washington plays John Hobbes, who is basically the same detective as Logan. The major differences are that this movie is set in Philadelphia instead of Los Angeles and Hobbes has captured eight serial killers to Logan’s five. Fallen similarly starts off with a charismatic but clearly unbalanced killer being executed via gas chamber. That killer then shows he has the ability to transcend death and possess the bodies of others, continuing to pester the cop in charge of his death.
Category 1 – The People Who Get Paid to Talk:
This should really be a no-brainer. We have Denzel Washington Vs. Lou Diamond Phillips in the lead. Then there is Elias Koteas Vs. Patrick Channing as the villain’s initial incarnation. Thirdly, John Goodman Vs. anybody else in the cast of The First Power. Fallen it is.
I’ll admit it… John Goodman is an American treasure. I’m biased towards anything he’s in. Sorry, we all have those artists who just happen to do something special when we see their work… he’s mine.
To get into more substantial detail… Denzel Washington is clearly one of the strongest actors of his generation. Unfortunately, this mid-budget supernatural thriller seems like exactly the type of movie he’d half-ass a performance in. The good news is, he is kind of fantastic in Fallen. He exudes the same neo-noir smarminess he brings to the underrated Devil in a Blue Dress, but somehow manages to emote even more intensely. I’d even go as far to say it is one of his top 5 performances. Meanwhile, Lou Diamond Phillips fails to bring pathos to the most comically grizzled 28 year-old cop of all time. Even looking beyond the other two character actors I mentioned (Casey Jones and Fred Flintstone… SWOON), Fallen really brings the thunder in its supporting cast. I shouldn’t really have to sell the fact that the film that includes James Gandolfini and Donald Sutherland is better than the one which has mediocre acting at best.
Not that the screenplay of The First Power does the actors any favors, but we’ll get into that later. Logan and his psychic love interest (Tracy Griffith) have negative chemistry, mainly due to LDP delivering his quips with an uncomfortable level of self-seriousness. Griffith’s nearly as bad with her ominous warnings and complete lack of a sense of humor.
SCORE: Fallen: 1 – The First Power: 0
Category 2 – What they Get Paid to Say:
Fallen is simply a solid supernatural thriller. The filmmakers wisely use the conceit of a demon who can pass through the consciousness of anyone as a tool to create atmosphere instead of a storytelling crutch. They never let the idea get away from them. Rather they quite cleverly have the demon Azazel use this power to systematically break down the life of Hobbes. When a cop starts suspecting everybody, he loses the trust and faith of those around him. As Azazel continually torments Hobbes, he also manages to trick him into situations that make both the characters and the viewers question his sanity. It feels like a living Hell, which is apt for a demon… and the ending of the film packs a dynamite punch.
The First Power on the other hand is laughably bad. While filled with mostly serviceable dialogue, once the actors have to deliver exposition or genuine concern the results are impressively groanworthy. However, beyond that we are treated to some of the strangest action beats in recent memory. It is hard to tell if writer/director Robert Resnikoff knew that half the film would look ridiculous onscreen, but it’s even harder to believe that everyone was oblivious to the fact that it wouldn’t work as a compelling crime drama. For example: Towards the climax, Channing possesses a homeless lady who happens to be wearing sunglasses in the dead of night. In the middle of a romantic interlude she pops up at Logan’s window and hovers there while doing comical flips and spins. Instead of trying to come off as menacing or disturbing, the actress makes the daring decision to act strangely nonchalant resulting in a completely deflated scene. Eventually she enters the apartment and starts fighting while witlessly shooting out some choice “zingers”. After getting punched she replies, “It’s not nice to hit a lady,” hits Logan back, and then cackles “Wheee!!!!” The attempted humor of the scene really undercuts any danger (I even think there are a few nutshots). When Logan and the psychic try to escape in a car she pops up in the backseat and the sequence doubles back into glorious camp. I can’t stress enough how hilarious the jump scares are when utilized with a goofy-looking homeless woman in her early 30’s, but the continuation of the scene is even funnier. Instead of viciously beating or biting them, she screams “Give me a kiss,” and tries to make out in the front seat with Lou Diamond Phillips. It’s dangerous because it almost causes the car to crash, but not quite the thrilling chase one would expect in the final action sequence. When they get to the big showdown a few minutes later Channing is even still in her body. Practically the whole movie he’s been showing his “true face” even while jumping into other people (I guess by telepathically making Logan see his face instead of the people he’s possessed?). However, in the final showdown he chooses to maintain the form of a 5’1″ bag lady who hasn’t showered in a few months.
What I’m trying to say is that Fallen may actually be good, but The First Power is totally “so bad it’s good”. There are some great, head-scratching moments that really pass for a good time. This one’s a tie.
SCORE: Fallen: 1 1/2 – The First Power: 1/2
Category 3 – The Satanic Verses
In this category, we’re going to judge how the supernatural elements work in each film’s favor. To be honest, ghost stories never quite work for me due to the fuzziness of the rules. It might be an unfair assessment, but I like my horror stories with a bite on the hand, a full moon, and a silver bullet. It’s nice and clean and there is always some old guy with a moustache there to portentously explain how it all works for the audience. With that knowledge, I’m not quite sure that The First Power had any rules at all. They explain that “The First Power” is Resurrection, “The Second Power” is Clairvoyance, and “The Third Power” is Possession. Channing makes a deal with Satan to get all these powers, (which apparently Jesus also had… although I don’t remember the time he jumped into a homeless woman’s body and danced around). It’s unclear exactly what’s going on with his powers from scene-to-scene though. He just disappears at will, is able to make Logan see things, and is seemingly immortal. Does he even have a body or is his spirit jumping around? Why does he look like Channing sometimes and like other people other times? It’s difficult if you’re trying to keep track and seems kind of silly for a movie that namechecks the specific “powers” in the title.
Fallen, on the other hand, has seemingly too many rules. As Hobbes starts conducting research on “Azazel” and reading police records that show different cops who went through similar ordeals in the past, he gets a lot of detail. It starts to suffer from what I like to call “The The Ring Effect”, where the audience is treated to several scenes of the protagonist doing research in a library. Azazel has to touch someone to transfer his essence. However, if the host body is killed the spirit can travel for up to 150 feet in order to find another one. How did they know the precise number of feet? Was that somewhere in The Bible or did a religious scientist perform experiments? It’s oddly specific. That being said… a demon with strongly delineated powers and limitations is wonderfully straightforward and superior to the latter.
SCORE: Fallen: 2 1/2 – The First Power: 1/2
Category 4 – Action A Go Go
Now that we’ve established that Fallen is the better supernatural thriller, let’s get to our bread and butter… Which is the better action film? Unfortunately, this isn’t quite a fair assessment because Fallen isn’t an action movie at all. There are no car chases nor explosions, just a shootout or two. With that in mind, it’s important to point out that it is an incredibly tense film that keeps you on the edge of your seat regardless. A scene where Hobbes stands on a busy sidewalk as Azazel continues to bunny hop into people walking past him is exceptionally well-shot and exciting.But The First Power IS an action movie and a surprisingly slick one at that. Due to Channing’s immortality he jumps off stuff like he’s one of those parkour guys we’re all sick of seeing in action movies. He leaps off buildings, cars, grain silos… whatever’s handy. As a result there are some truly solid stunts, including one 10-story jump which I’m still not sure how they filmed. It’s a standard high fall off the top of a building (presumably into an air bag), however the camera holds steady on the last few stories so we can see the stuntman land on his feet and run away. The filmmakers also manage to toss in a few rad car chases involving spectacular crashes and flips.
Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without something that made no sense at all. During one sequence, Channing (wearing a mask of what seems to be his own face) grabs a ceiling fan out of the wall and it continues to spin despite no longer being hooked up to any electrical source. Logan shoots repeatedly at him and the spinning fan manages to stop the bullets. And then Channing continues to chase him with a working ceiling fan! The First Power is a film that put a lot of thought and care into stunt coordination but paradoxically is full of absolutely ludicrous ideas. You know you’re watching the right movie when the climax has you asking questions like “Why does Los Angeles’ water supply empty into a vat of acid? Whoa, why did that acid just explode?!”
SCORE: Fallen 2 1/2 – The First Power: 1 1/2
Category 5 – Is Fallen a Rip-off?
The real question at the end of the day here is whether The First Power should get the point for making a watchable film out of its interesting premise before Fallen made a movie out of basically the same premise. The alternative is that, while not being an official remake, should Fallen receive the point for standing on its own as a police thriller about a serial killer tormenting his arch nemesis? By taking a more grounded approach to the outlandish idea, does Fallen neuter the idea completely? Should it be disregarded completely for merely being a “rip-off” of an over-the-top action film from eight years earlier? This might be an unfair and self-fulfilling category, but by virtue of their disparate tones both movies have something to offer. So, while Fallen should really be penalized for sucking the fun out of an insane b-movie, it manages to inject its own sense of stylish thrills right back into the formula. It’s not just a paint-by-numbers, carbon copy of The First Power… it replaces all the wacky WTF moments with strong performances, a strong commitment to the possibilities of the story, and an enjoyably dark tone. It might be missing a horny bag lady flying through the air, but it probably doesn’t need it.
On second thought, basing a category on a binary situation like that isn’t fair at all. Let’s call this one a tie as well.
The Final Verdict: Fallen 3 – The First Power: 2
While still beaten by its unofficial remake, I still strongly suggest watching The First Power. This is done preferably with a large audience you can comfortably laugh along with. This was my second time with both movies and while I knew I’d enjoy The First Power again, I was able to further appreciate the filmmaking techniques that make Fallen so successful. I agree with the math above.
Happy Thanksgiving, and be sure to stay tuned to catch a new look for Why Did I Watch This? next week!
All The First Power images courtesy of Orion Pictures
All Fallen images courtesy of Turner Pictures