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Review: 'The Rite' is all wrong

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN.
Anthony Hopkins, left, stars as Father Lucas and Colin O'Donoghue stars as Michael Kovak in "The Rite."
Anthony Hopkins, left, stars as Father Lucas and Colin O'Donoghue stars as Michael Kovak in "The Rite."
  • Anthony Hopkins plays a Welsh priest in "The Rite"
  • The film deals with exorcisms and possession
  • The reviewer says the film sufferers from an "unimaginative script"

(CNN) -- The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist -- at least so said Verbal Kint in the film "The Usual Suspects," an unreliable source in most things.

Judging by most movies dealing with exorcism and possession -- and this is the second to come our way in 2011, after "Season of the Witch" -- Satan is not so smart. Or maybe, like Megamind, he just needs an adversary to keep things interesting.

In "The Rite," Michael Kovak (played by newcomer Colin O'Donoghue) runs away from home to join the priesthood. "You don't understand, in our family we become morticians or priests," he explains to his bewildered buddy.

Cut to four years later, and Michael finally tries to drop out of the seminary by admitting he's not really cut out for the cassock, being an atheist and all. Perversely (or not, as it turns out) he's packed off to exorcism school in Rome, where he finds his calling under the unorthodox tutelage of Father Lucas Trevant.

It's not a name that conjures images of leeks or rugby, but as he's played by Anthony Hopkins, Father Lucas is identified as Welsh -- and even trips into some of the authentic West Glamorgan accent in moments of high excitement or diabolical possession.

Kovak is unimpressed with his first exorcism: a pregnant Italian teenager who has, quite clearly, been impregnated by her own father and who is blaming Beelzebub. Father Lucas even breaks off midrite to answer his iPhone -- the film's one inspired moment and only big intentional laugh. "What did you expect? Twisting heads and pea soup?" teases the old priest, noting that it can take months, even years to extricate a demon.

Happily, Kovak doesn't have that kind of time and nor do we. So it's not long before the girl is spitting out nails, speaking "American," and exhibiting physical agility that would be alarming in even the second, let alone the third trimester.

Personally, I'd be reaching for a rosary before the first nail hit the floor. But Kovak takes his skepticism more seriously than that. Satan is going to have to tap dance on his head and visit a plague of frogs on his cloister before he accepts a life of celibacy and prayer.

Which is more or less what happens -- and why you have to wonder what the Antichrist is thinking. He might as well wear horns and pin a pointy tail on his back.

"Suggested by" Matt Baglio's book about a real-life modern exorcist, "The Rite" dabbles in kindergarten theological debates. No surprise there. But its hyperbole doesn't translate into horror, either. There is nothing in this PG-13 rated chiller that compares with the impact of "The Exorcist," no matter that William Friedkin's film is nearly 40 years old.

Director Mikael Hafstrom ("1408") tries to play on memories of Hannibal Lecter, and Hopkins' wily performance is the movie's only saving grace. Hopkins still has the coldest gaze in the world.

But there's not much Hopkins can do with Michael Petroni's unimaginative script except ham it up. Watching Father Lucas battle with his demons, we're forced to wonder if the devil's just another dirty old man. Unless, of course, it's an elaborate double bluff: Maybe it's precisely through false true stories like this that he gets away with murder?