Getting his feet wet on-screen

July 12, 2002|By John Anderson | John Anderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Steve Irwin probably drives a lot of people crazy. And with reason. His manic exuberance combined with his only reasonably convincing naivete probably makes them feel like one of those venomous reptiles Irwin swings around by the tail bellowing "Crikey" ("This snake is mad - really mad!"), as he explains a la Marlin Perkins why the thing could easily kill "a hundred blokes my size" and prompts the viewer to choose sides.

So the very idea of making Irwin - the wildly enthusiastic, wildly knowledgeable wild man of the Australian Outback and the star of Animal Planet's Crocodile Hunter - seems like a recipe for disaster because the standard recipe would call for him (and wife, Terri, who drives the truck, drives the boat and can never quite get the noose around the crocodile's snout) to do everything he doesn't do well. And which is precisely why Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course is so refreshing and funny and, in its way, sophisticated.

Starting with the subplot - a twist in itself - the movie opens in outer space, where a U.S. satellite self-destructs, hurling toward Earth its secret black box, which lands in Australia and is promptly eaten by a 12-foot crocodile. The entire intelligence community is on alert, because loss of the box (actually more of a space ball, with apologies to Mel Brooks) could affect the future of the free world. Despite this, the government sends CIA agents to locate the thing and bring it back.

Cut to Steve and Terri, who are essentially doing their show - yes, the aspect ratio changes to television format, Irwin narrates the action, Terri adds hilariously bland but educational commentary, and it's as if we're watching Animal Planet. There is another subplot - a shotgun-toting farm woman (Magda Szubanski of Babe) is after the same cow-eating crocodile, which Irwin is dispatched to relocate. Essentially, though, the Irwins never leave the sanctity of the documentary format.

They have no idea the CIA is after them (once they capture the crocodile, all U.S. surveillance suggests that they, not the croc, are in possession of the box). The Irwins just think the crazy guys with guns are poachers and outwit them with the aplomb of Osama bin Laden.

Although always swathed in the comfortable clothing of the cable show, Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course has a pretty deadly wit. Irwin's neverending monologue is consistently cornpone clever, delivered, as it is, while he's got a deadly brown snake by the tail or is hunched over the back of a sometimes uncooperative crocodile.

There's the ever-so-subtle bit of naughtiness, such as when Terri takes her shirt off to warm an orphaned baby kangaroo (she has another on underneath) or when Irwin is particularly impressed by the equipment on a bird-eating spider ("Does she have a set of fangs on 'er or what!?"). Kids will love it, because Irwin is always "mucking" around in "poo," telling you what the animal ate and then wiping it on his shirt.

It isn't Tom Stoppard. But it's just about as funny.

John Anderson writes for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Crocodile Hunter

Starring Steve Irwin, Terri Irwin, Magda Szubanski

Directed by John Stainton

Rated PG (action violence/peril, mild language)

Released by MGM

Running time 90 minutes

SUN SCORE * *

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