The Ghost and the Darkness
1996, R, 112 min. Directed by Stephen Hopkins. Starring Michael Douglas, Val Kilmer, Brian McCardie, John Kani, Henry Cele, Om Puri, Emily Mortimer.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 18, 1996
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend two hours inside the skull of Papa Hemingway? Here's your chance to find out. Hopkins' new film is a testosterone overload, equal parts lion hunt and Robert Bly wimp-aversion therapy, which in and of itself is a pardonable sin, but the film also suffers from sporadic delusions of Leanness (à la David), and the kind of “Look, Ma, I'm an epic!” tomfoolery that leaves you grinning, but a long way from awestruck. Vilmos Zsigmond's splendid cinematography captures every gorgeous angle of the African savannah to great effect, but with Douglas' wild, ham-fisted overacting and Kilmer's on-again off-again Irish accent, the final result seems a bit more of a Snark hunt than a Lion hunt. Based on a true story (as the film frequently reminds us), The Ghost and the Darkness is the story of what happens when British colonialism in Africa in the form of a railway line stretching from Mombassa to Lake Victoria is stopped dead in its tracks by a pair of ravenous, seemingly unstoppable man-eating lions. It's also a metaphor for the evils of said colonialism and the horrors that nature can free up in the face of human intrusion, but then using a heavy metaphor and Michael Douglas in the same film is like taking an E ticket at Six Flags with your pockets stuffed full of nitroglycerin: Things go bang and fall down a lot. Abruptly. Kilmer plays bridge engineer John Patterson, a man who leaves his three-month-pregnant wife in London while he follows his dream job to darkest Africa. Once there, he encounters a pair of man-eaters whom the locals refer to as Ghost and Darkness. Unable to bring down the lions on his own, he reluctantly accepts the help of Douglas' Remington, an expatriate Confederate soldier who now spends his time traversing the globe killing big game for sport. The film is fine up to a point (the lion attacks are rollicking, bloody affairs, full of hideous grunts and screams and a little too much low-end digitizing), but when Remington begins offering up sage, manly advice for anyone who'll listen, things get silly fast. Some viewers may find the film borrowing heavily from Speilberg's Jaws, as well: A scene in which Remington, Patterson, and their foreman Samuel (South African actor John Kani) sit around a campfire swapping battle stories and getting drunk while a lion prowls in the veldt nearby brings to mind the scenes of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss hamming it up aboard the Orca. Perhaps a little too much. For all its noble intent, Hopkins' film falls flat halfway through, mired in bad philosophizing and too-beautiful killing fields, neither bark nor bite mean much here.