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The Ghost and the Darkness  

Starring: Michael Douglas, Val Kilmer, Brian McCardie, John Kani, Om Puri Directed by: Stephen Hopkins Written by: William Goldman Rated R Running Time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

"The Ghost and the Darkness" tells the story of two lions that terrorized the workers of a bridge-building project in Africa during the late 1800's. The project was helmed by Col. John Patterson (Val Kilmer), and so, in order to complete the project in time, he must kill these lions with the assistance of a big game hunter named Remington (Michael Douglas). The two men soon realize there is much more to these man-eaters than meets the eye.

This film is very ambitious. Perhaps a little too ambitious. The trailer for the film clearly states: "even the most amazing parts of the story are true." Whenever a film goes out of it's way to say it is based on truth, there is always a danger of the movie sacrificing good story structure for a more "accurate" account. That's what happened here, I think. Allow me to cite a couple of examples which I WILL discuss in detail, so be warned.

First, take the scene where Remington and Patterson stumble upon the lions' lair. It is chock full of skeletal remains. As the two men wade through the scattered bone fragments, Remington quietly says: "Oh my God. Lions don't do this. No lair is like this. They're doing it for the pleasure." Now, THAT is a terrific scene. A plot point, a "whammy", call it whatever you want - it's a great scene raises the level of curiosity and fear in the characters involved as well as the audience. Place that scene at the end of the first act and you have the viewer hooked. So, what's the problem? The problem is that scene comes about three-quarters of the way into the movie, right at the point in the story where a scene like that has very little impact.

Now, take the scene where one of the lions attacks while the bridge is being constructed. A worker is dragged off and is being eaten alive. We see extreme close-ups of the lion chewing away at the victim's flesh while the fully-conscious man kicks and screams in terror. Patterson approaches, rifle in hand. It is a very tense moment, when the horrifying thought of being faced with a situation like that suddenly emerges into reality. How will Patterson react? He'll only have an opportunity to fire off one shot, and if it misses, he'll be dinner. A terrific climax, right? The problem? That scene comes in the film's FIRST act.

There are many scenes like the ones I've discussed above - scenes that are well-crafted, intense, and downright scary. The trouble is, those scenes are at the mercy of filmmakers who don't know how to structure their story. The more I thought back on this film, the more I realized how jumbled it really is.

The movie was directed by Stephen ("Blown Away", "Judgment Night") Hopkins, who despite being talented and ambitious, has yet to find a knack for telling his stories in the most effective way. The overall tension the film could have achieved is botched by his over-zealous direction and dependence on state-of-the-art special effects. Suspense isn't generated by the sight of a gruesome act, but rather by the mere suggestion of a gruesome act. The trouble with some of the attack sequences is that it is obvious we are watching a special effect. The audience doesn't need to see someone being eaten alive by a lion to imagine how terrifying it would be. Why try to recreate it? The imagination of the viewer can be a valuable tool in creating suspense. A filmmaker just needs to know how to use it - suggest more, show less.

There are many movies out of Hollywood that don't even try to entertain their intended audience. This is NOT one of those movies. The problem here is that the filmmakers tried too hard. The look of the film is terrific - it looks like it was made by filmmakers who were out to make a powerful, epic American masterpiece. A simpler approach would have worked better. You don't always have to shoot for the stars - if you concentrate on doing the best possible work you can, the stars just might come to you.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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