The Austin Chronicle

The Skulls

Rated PG-13, 107 min. Directed by Rob Cohen. Starring William Peterson, Steve Harris, Christopher McDonald, Leslie Bibb, Hill Harper, Craig T. Nelson, Paul Walker, Joshua Jackson.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 31, 2000

I never thought I'd run across a film that makes the lumbering 1983 Michael Biehne/Bill Paxton film The Lords of Discipline look smart by comparison, but lo and behold, here it is. With none-too-subtle commentaries on everything from campus class wars and the schizoid allure of power and wealth to why it may not be such a hot idea to send Junior to those prestigious Ivy-cloaked schools back East, The Skulls is a teen movie with a message: Avoid members of secret societies at all costs; and the unspoken corollary, Never elect them to high office. The Skulls appears to have borrowed the crux of its story from twice-told tales of Yale University's semi-secret Skull and Bones Society, which, if the rumors are true, has molded several centuries of young men and provided lifelong networking opportunities for such Yalies as former President George Bush and assorted shadowy government and business figures. Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau made light of Bush's super-secret, no-girls-allowed Skull and Bones background a decade or so ago, and seeing Rob Cohen's attempt to expand on the whole secret society schtick only makes me long for the daze of Zonker. Screenwriter John Pogue (U.S. Marshals) perhaps thought he was tapping some rich vein of social discontent with this story about a poor townie kid who finds himself tapped for inclusion by the eponymous group, only to find that his buddies from the old neighborhood, they of the stolen cars and Genesee Creme Ale 12-packs, make the better cronies in the long run. Will Hunting, where are you when we need you? Dawson's Creek star Jackson plays Lucas McNamara, the townie in question, who attends an unnamed Ivy League school (it's actually the University of Toronto) while splitting his time between manning the oarlocks for the sculling team and wishing he had the nerve to ask out his best friend, Chloe (Bibb). Faced with financial-aid problems that have stillborn his promising graduate law career, Luke finds a way out by joining the Skulls, where he's initiated into a secret world of power and privilege, so much so that you keep expecting the whole group to be headed by none other than Al Pacino from The Devil's Advocate. They're that nasty, yes, but Luke is swayed by the sudden influx of mystery cash in his checking account, the cherry 1963 T-Bird in his driveway, and the friendship of his newfound “soulmate,” Caleb Mandrake (Walker), whose father (Nelson, altogether too serious in the role) heads the Skulls alumni. Like the aforementioned Lord of Discipline, it's not long before the murder of a young man occurs (a black man, it should be noted -- the film doesn't hesitate to play the race card early on), and Luke is questioning his loyalties on all sides. From here on out the film is an exercise in unintentional farce (though cinematographer Shane Hurlbut rallies with some pleasing camerawork). One look at William Peterson -- as a senatorial Skull alumni -- made up to look like a cross between Bill Clinton and an aging Charlie Chaplin is all you need to see to realize this movie takes itself way too seriously, though, unfortunately, not quite so seriously that I was able to suppress those spontaneous guffaws that kept arising.

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