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Americans love angels and Americans love serial killers, so why not a movie about an angel who’s a serial killer? That’s Fallen, a celestial-psychopath flick that could have been called Touched by a Killer.

While it’s amusing to imagine The Silence of the Lambs with Della Reese in the Anthony Hopkins role, Fallen’s principal harbinger is actually Seven. That’s clear from the distressed type used in the credits, as well as from the depiction of murder. Rather than spraying the screen with the hot blood of butchered innocents, the movie provides a succession of cold corpses, just like the aftermath-minded Seven. Oddly, the bodies aren’t mutilated. The murderer chooses perhaps the least cinematic method of dispatching his victims: poison.

Maybe that’s because the team behind Fallen is trying to keep some vestige of its dignity. In its inane way, this movie tries to be classy. After all, scripter/executive producer Nicholas Kazan once wrote a smart film, Reversal of Fortune, and director Gregory Hoblit, a TV cop-show veteran, made his big-screen debut with the halfway decent (the first half) Primal Fear. The cast, too, is upscale: Denzel Washington plays police detective John Hobbes (as in the 17th-century philosopher who characterized human society as the “war of all against all”), and Embeth Davidtz (as theologian Gretta Milano) brings the reflected luster of Schindler’s List. The filmmakers even hired composer Tan Dun (who wrote the official music for the handover of Hong Kong) to provide some tastefully minor-key violin bowings and scrapings. (Some of his suitably ominous music is excerpted from a piece memorializing the Japanese “rape of Nanking.”)

We meet Hobbes as he prepares for the execution of serial killer Edgar Reese (Atom Egoyan regular Elias Koteas). Just before he’s ushered into the gas chamber, Reese utters a string of odd pronouncements, some of them in an unrecognizable language. He also sings a bit of the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is on My Side,” which becomes a musical motif. Hobbes doesn’t think too much about it until more bodies turn up, murdered in a style that suggests that someone is emulating the dead murderer. Hobbes and his partner Jones (John Goodman) begin to study Reese’s final testament, which leads to a long-buried police department scandal: an exemplary cop who apparently killed himself after being accused of misconduct. Hobbes’ next stop is the cop’s daughter, Milano, who has grown up to become a theology professor.

Milano initially rebuffs Hobbes’ questions, but soon she helps put the pieces into place: Reese was speaking Aramaic, the long-dead language of the Old Testament. And Reese wasn’t the killer, he was just possessed by the diabolical spirit Azazel, the same one that continues the killing spree in a variety of forms. (This evil-walks-among-us premise trumps the hateful Copycat.) Battling a demon is a nasty business, even for a tough cop; Azazel threatens Hobbes’ genial brother (Gabriel Casseus) and cute nephew (Michael J. Pagan) as the spirit plants doubts in the mind of the detective’s superior, Lt. Stanton (Donald Sutherland).

Although the press kit features a quote from Revelation, Azazel actually made its first known appearance in Leviticus. The name originally referred to an evil wilderness spirit whom the Israelites placated by sending a goat (known as the scapegoat) into the desert. (In Kazan’s best joke, Hobbes tells a corrupt colleague that “cops are the chosen people.”) As with much Satanic lore, Azazel’s status owes less to the Bible than to Paradise Lost: It was Milton who took the name to refer to a leader of Lucifer’s fallen angels. (The poet’s own name was recently given to the devilish Al Pacino character in Devil’s Advocate.)

Hollywood is always anxious for new material, and Fallen, like Seven, reflects the discovery that there’s some wild stuff in the Bible. (Or maybe the biz has just realized that today’s laidback Christians are unlikely to be scandalized by a movie that loots the Good Book for a bad plot.) Both movies also share an essential trait of the traditional detective story: the pretense of order, however arbitrary or contrived. Even as the plot wanders into the never-never land of ancient superstition, Hobbes keeps his Sherlock Holmesian rationality. “People want the world to make sense,” announces Stanton, which is the closest Fallen comes to indicting the audience for this tripe.

The movie also serves the lust for vicarious blood of an increasingly sanitized, shrink-wrapped, and community-gated America. Set in a dark, mostly unrecognizable (and never named) Philadelphia, the movie presumes a city where Hobbes can walk into a corner bar and not even notice that the climax of Freaks, Tod Browning’s lurid 1932 film cast with actual deformed sideshow attractions, is playing on the TV. If Fallen were honest, it would all have been shot in the greenish, distorted style that represents Azazel’s demonic viewpoint. But then the movie could scarcely admit that it’s contemporary humans, not archaic fiends, who have a taste for evil.CP