Just how seriously one should take Scott Derrickson's latest crack at the exorcism genre, Deliver Us from Evil, is spelled out pretty early on. That's when we meet the very Australian actor Eric Bana as New York cop Ralph Sarchie, utilizing a distracting Brooklyn accent that is never less than comical. It's also when the limits of poor casting are taken to another level with funny guy Joel McHale as his tough, wise-cracking partner. This is not a movie that cares altogether much about the details, and as it laughably asserts some basis in reality it becomes just another boring movie about demonic possession.
Based on the cases of the real-life Sarchie, Deliver Us from Evil is basically a dull police procedural with just enough supernatural to separate it from an episode of Criminal Minds. The warmed over frights begin in Iraq where three soldiers have stumbled upon something ominous, something we know is probably evil and really clingy. Jumping to New York, we are introduced to Sarchie (Bana), a cookie-cutter cop with a heap of personal issues pulled straight from the playbook. You won't be surprised to learn that his wife (Olivia Munn, not called upon to do much thankfully) and daughter don't see dear old Dad very often, and when they do he's distant. "Even when you're here you're not here", she says, quoting from just about every cop movie ever. Sarchie has been having a rough time of it lately. In short order he discovers a dead baby in an alley, then he begins investigating a string of connected disturbances. First off, a domestic call leads him and smart-ass partner Butler (McHale) to a grungy, filthy home where the wife has been abused by her husband, an Iraq War vet. Then a seemingly-possessed mother tosses her baby into the lion's den at the zoo, leading Sarchie to have a We Bought a Zoo showdown with the jungle cats, and finally the discovery of a badly decomposed body in an apartment building.
We get to spend an awful lot of time with Sarchie and Butler as they dryly fumble around to piece these events together, not really seeing it as anything other than typical big city craziness. Of course there are strange Latin inscriptions at every crime scene and Sarchie starts hearing voices, but the idea of it as something supernatural eludes him because, as we are often reminded in heavy-handed fashion, he's a lapsed Catholic who now trusts in his gut rather than God. All of that changes with the arrival of the one aspect of the film that makes it worth enduring, and that's Edgar Ramirez as Father Mendoza, a chain-smoking priest who is like Constantine by way of Doctor Strange. A man with his own personal demons, a bag of evil-fighting tools, and a fondness for liquor, Mendoza informs Sarchie that everything he's seeing are part of some seriously bad mojo that needs to be cleansed. Time to break out the holy water.
Derrickson, who also directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the much better Sinister is a filmmaker who excels at creating a foreboding mood. His obsidian view of New York is a hellish nightmare of bad tidings, and with the introduction of Mendoza the film temporarily flashes potential for going beyond the norm. While we don't get to see Mendoza and Sarchie together nearly enough, the conversations they have about faith and guilt hold a lot of weight, in particular a discussion about God's place in a world of such terrible violence. But these moments of character are disparate, and both men too underwritten as a whole. Ramirez is a jolt of fire and brimstone as Mendoza, though, so good that it makes one hope the rumors of him joining Derrickson's Doctor Strange film are true. Can't argue that he hasn't been field tested for the role.
Deliver Us from Evil soon jettisons any pretense and goes straight for the exorcism scene we all knew was coming with very little variation from what's been the standard ever since The Exorcism. The sheer fury of their psychological demon battle is impressive to behold but we've seen it all before; shattering windows, screaming, painful truths revealed, and lots of crucifixes. Maybe at some point a film will come along that depicts this battle of good vs. pure evil in way we've never seen but Deliver Us from Evil won't be it.