The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)

Val Kilmer is an excellent actor. Michael Douglas is not. So right away, you know that a movie pairing the two is going to be a bit uneven.

The Ghost and the Darkness is based on a true story about two lions who killed 130 people over a nine-month period in 1898 while being pursued by a bridge engineer, John Patterson (Val Kilmer) and a professional hunter, Remington (Michael Douglas). Patterson has been assigned to build the bridge in Tsavo, east Africa, and so killing the lions and getting on with the work is his passion. Douglas is motivated by the thrill of the hunt.

This is a sound premise for a movie, but really, to make a "true story" convincing, you have got to put some imagination into it. You can't just plunge us into the facts as they occurred and expect much impact. This is what director Stephen Hopkins has done, however. The director of such classics as Nightmare on Elm Street 5: A Dream Child, Predator 2, Dangerous Game, and Blown Away has brought us another film in the same vein, with completely undeveloped characters and brainless, hard-to-follow action.

Of course, there really are only two characters in the film anyway, Patterson and Remington, Kilmer and Douglas. You would think that enough had changed in Hollywood since the 1930s-50s, the heyday of the African action-adventure, that perhaps one of the Africans might turn into a real character, such as in Bob Rafelson's The Mountains of the Moon, an excellent and exciting film about the discovery of the source of the Nile which is available on video. But, alas, Samuel (John Kani), the native sidekick, is a rather one-dimensional character. Luckily, this is not as much of an insult as it might have been, since Patterson and Remington have something like one and a quarter to one and a half dimensions themselves. The only character who can really complain is Abdullah (Om Puri), the unofficial leader of the Arab workers, who is constantly either threatening or running for his life. Isn't that just like an Arab? (Hint: Certainly, at least, not as much as Hollywood would make it appear.)

Kilmer and Douglas don't do much with the dimensions they are given anyway. Kilmer seems to think he is Marlon Brando from The Young Lions, and he poses and grimaces and hides behind a fakey Irish brogue when he feels uncomfortable. He did a good Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau, but this time he flops. Presumably he saw how few lines he had in the film, and, instead of demanding that they write a character for him, he figured Patterson was just taciturn. He should probably be more like stoic and thoughtful. Oh, well. Douglas plays Remington like an aging Wild Bill showing off his aging stuff for the Wild West Show, instead of as a real killer or a serious hunter.

Then there's Emily Mortimer, who plays Helena, Patterson's wife. I don't know if it's her character or her acting which is more annoying, but if she had been cut from the picture entirely, it would have made little difference. She is doing some kind of incomprehensible accent which is not even recognizable as Irish. And her annoying presence, fondly and anxiously recalled by Kilmer in the field in Africa, supplies none of the nostalgia it should. You think, well, yes, he might go back for the baby, but her? Which is not what you should be thinking.

And then there are the lions. As in Jaws or whatever else, Predator 2, whatever, who cares, the actual stalking killers are really only glimpsed for the most part. In Jaws or whatever, say, Predator 2, the actual monster, when seen, is actually frightening. These lions look like stop-motion digital creations (which is what they ARE), and when they leap on their hapless victims, you wish you were watching a movie with really good effects, like Ray Harryhausen's in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. We don't need no steenking digital effects.

Overall, this is a classic example of the recent rather silly trend toward building half-hearted movies around no story and some Big Effect, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or the twisters in Twister. It can work. This time it didn't. Soon, you may see movies actually focusing on the story again and letting the effects serve that. But don't hold your breath.

Links for The Ghost and the Darkness

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review


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