Crichton's 'Congo' is dreary, insensitive and cruel

June 09, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Is Bob Dole secretly behind "Congo"?

No movie has made or will make the Republican senator and presidential candidate seem more right in his assault on debased popular culture than this tawdry, cruel, ugly exercise in cynicism and utter insensitivity. Isn't it a little late in the game to expect an audience to get with a film that watches gleefully as guys with automatic weapons mow down an unknown species of gray gorilla? Talk about natural born killers!

OK, they're only men in monkey suits, and as a movie illusion, the old man-in-the-monkey-suit bit hasn't advanced much beyond the '40s and "Ramar of the Jungle."

Still, as spectacle, "Congo" is deadening to the spirit of anyone who believes that man ought to share, rather than dominate, the planet. I'm no PETA zealot. I eat meat, wear leather shoes and belt and have no problem with ethical hunting. But machineguns shouldn't be used on animals, particularly in the confines of an otherwise completely artificial, dreary back-lot Grade C adventure movie. And no movie should depend on the spectacle of the mismatch between firepower and natural instinct as its key selling point.

It's a philosophical issue of some intensity. The men, in this case, have no moral right to kill the animals -- despite the film's pretense that the animals are "bad," having descended from a species bred for aggression like primate pit bulls by King Solomon's minions all those epochs ago. The animals have no choice, do they? That's why they're animals. Have they decided to be bad? Have they even decided to be animals? They're not invading human turf or in any way doing anything that their instinct hasn't instructed them.

Derived from yet another techno-thriller by techno-hack Michael Crichton, author of such masterpieces as "Jurassic Park," "Disclosure" and "Rising Sun," this one tells of an expedition to the center of the Congo wilderness, ostensibly to rescue a previous expedition, but in reality to plunder Solomon's wealth, as diamonds are both a girl's and an industrial laser's best friend.

The movie is swaddled in unconvincing technical nonsense, crude work-ups of satellites that look like tin cans with tail fins floating through space, and glitzy communications screens with irrelevant readouts buzzing across their surfaces. All of this can't disguise the fact that the film is basically the old-fashioned exemplar of imperialism and racism -- the safari movie -- that is hiding its rancid heart behind a fig leaf of political correctness. Instead of a white Victor Mature as the soldier of fortune leading the mission, the movie offers up a black Ernie Hudson. And it turns out that the most macho member is, rather, macha, a female scientist who's plenty good with both an Uzi and a laser gun. Meanwhile, the nominal hero, the handsome white man, is a sensitive nincompoop who wants only to return his gorilla to the wilds.

None of these performers rises above the mediocre except for Hudson, who dominates easily in what appears to be an imitation of Geoffrey Holder in a 7-Up commercial. But Laura Linney, who plays the tough gal, and Dylan Walsh, who plays the soft boy, have utterly forgettable TV faces; they look as though they wandered in from a casting call for "Bay Watch."

Their characters are thinner than paint on a wall. Walsh, for example, who is offered as a man who has spent his life studying, working with and loving primates, hasn't a twitch of inner conflict when the script calls for him to start blowing them away.

Frank Marshall, the otherwise undistinguished director of this botch, has a low, crass sense of humor about on the level of the "Francis the Talking Mule" screenwriters, and he does manage to generate a few laughs. Amy, Walsh's pet gorilla, loves to kick back with a martini now and then, and a gorilla with a martini is as sure a chuckle as an ugly dog that pees on the bad guy's boots in a western.

But the mix of banal, low comedy and grotesque violence comes finally to seem obscene. What bothers me most is an issue of technique. When the men shoot the gorillas, the camera is frequently sited over the man's shoulder, so that we can enjoy the whole cause-and-effect thrill, the gun firing, flashing, ejecting shells, the animal staggering as the bullets detonate in bloody blossoms across its body, and then sagging toward oblivion. It's almost interactive: Kill the gorilla and win a free game.

Unnecessary. Worse, unclean.

"Congo"

Starring Dylan Walsh, Laura Linney and Ernie Hudson

Directed by Frank Marshall

Released by Paramount

PG-13 (extreme violence, however)

No stars

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