Saturday, May 16, 2015

Congo

I remember seeing Congo in theaters in 1995. The hype at the time pegged it as the next Jurassic Park because it was based on a novel by Michael Crichton, being directed by Steven Spielberg's longtime producing partner Frank Marshall, and being written by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Patrick Shanley. It wasn't until many years later I realized how weird and goofy this movie was.

Congo has a reputation as a bad movie, and maybe it is terrible, but I can't help but love this movie. Instead of being swept up in the action and adventure, as I was when I first saw it as a kid, I watch it now and can't stop laughing. Whether it was meant to be funny is irrelevant; it entertains me.

Crichton said he intended Congo to be his version of King Solomon's Mines, and looking at the plot, it's not hard to see the parallels. An expedition is mounted to the deepest, darkest jungles of Africa, encountering all sorts of dangers and setbacks along the way. In updating the material, Crichton added his usual theme of corporations exploiting science for a buck as well as modern African politics and civil wars and Amy, a gorilla taught sign language so she can communicate with the wild apes of the region.

Apparently, Crichton wrote the book so he could direct the movie himself and have Sean Connery star as Charles Munro, a Great White Hunter in the Stewart Granger mode leading the expedition. That was in the 1980s, and that version never happened. To give you an idea of the tone of the finished film, Ernie Hudson plays Munro Kelly who says, "I am your Great White Hunter for this trip, though I happen to be black." Only an actor as talented as Ernie Hudson could make that line cool.

The plot for Congo is nonsense. Some business about going to the jungle to find the lost city Zinj, where a diamond stash will power a communications satellite system that will dominate the industry. Our intrepid explorers - Munro, communications expert Karen Ross (Laura Linney), primatologist Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh), his sign-language-using gorilla Amy, "Romanian philanthropist" Herkemer Homolka (Tim Curry), and assorted backup and porters - encounter harsh terrain, African civil wars, lost tribes, hungry hungry hippos, and other obstacles en route to their destination. When the expedition reaches Zinj, they find the ancient city guarded by a horde of violent, gray gorillas inside an active volcano.

The movie is wall-to-wall with recognizable faces in walk-ons chewing the scenery, often to ridiculous levels. Why hey, that's Joe Don Baker as the CEO of a global communications company. And look, it's Bruce Campbell as the leader of the first (doomed) expedition. There's John Carpenter regular Peter Jason at an airport, Joe Pantoliano in a wise guy Joe Pantoliano part at another airport, and Delroy Lindo as a military honcho who loves a good bribe (and sesame cake). It's like the filmmakers gave up on trying to craft a narrative that made any kind of plausible sense and just threw a bunch of recognizable actors in bit parts to liven things up, and I got to say, it works.

Hudson and Linney are fun as the stable, take-charge types; while on a plane being shot down by heat-seeking missiles, they kick open a door and fire flares to take out the incoming projectiles. Curry is hilarious as the nefarious, conniving Mr. Homolka, who has a lifelong obsession with finding Zinj and whom everyone else treats like crap. Example: Lindo asks him, "What are you doing in my country, you bag of shit?" Of the leads, only Walsh disappoints because he plays things seriously and only ends up dull (Bruce Campbell was reportedly up for the role, and his presence would have been a sign that the makers were fully embracing the cheese factor).

Jurassic Park revolutionized special effects by employing a combination of life-like animatronic and groundbreaking computer-generated imagery to bring its dinosaurs to life and give them personalities. Congo apparently intended to create its gorillas using CGI as well, but the technology was not yet capable of replicating hair, so these creatures are rendered using actors in gorilla suits. The suits, at least on the normal gorillas, aren't too shabby, but if they were going for majestic and awe-inspiring, they failed; after all, they are just a bunch of normal-sized, dirty monkeys. Amy is entertaining at least, drinking martinis, throwing an egg at Karen out of jealously, and chasing after Peter to get him to tickle her. Also, the laser Karen crafts using a diamond to slice through the gray gorillas is frickin' sweet.

If you're looking for a grand spectacle in the vein of Jurassic Park, Congo fails miserably. As a glorious B-Movie jungle adventure with an A-list budget, it is endearing. I can't help myself.

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