Friday October 11, 1996
"I am epic, hear me roar" is what the lion-centered "The Ghost and the Darkness" would have you believe. The reality is more like an acceptably loud noise than a true roar, but so few films venture into the old-fashioned world of historical action adventures that even a loud noise is a welcome sound.
Based on a true story of derring-do, "The Ghost and the Darkness" stars square-jawed Michael Douglas and steely-eyed Val Kilmer in the cinematic equivalent of those ripping yarns that once filled the pages of magazines like Argosy and Men's Life. It's also an attempt to do "Jaws" in the high grass of Africa with a visual sophistication that finally can't transcend a too-familiar script.
Set largely in turn-of-the-century Kenya (then known as British East Africa), "Ghost" begins in London, where John Patterson (Kilmer) takes a job from an egocentric tycoon named Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson) who's determined to build a railway across Africa.
Standing in the way is a river at a place called Tsavo that needs Patterson's skills as a bridge builder. A poetic sort who believes that bridges "bring worlds together," the spit-and-polish Patterson also gets teary-eyed about Africa, a continent he's "been longing for all my life."
The reality of Tsavo, "the worst place on Earth," according to the railway camp's major-domo Samuel (South African actor John Kani), is a bit more daunting. Three thousand men, an incendiary mix of Hindus, Muslims and Africans, are laying track in the vicinity, and they are not happy campers.
Directed by Stephen Hopkins and photographed by standout cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, "Ghost" is at its strongest in setting the African scene, and not just in providing live-action National Geographic vistas. The reality of the railway camp, of hordes of workers sweating under a waving Union Jack, is effectively and engrossingly conveyed.
A take-charge individual who is always announcing he's going to "sort out" this or that problem, Patterson reacts to a worker being attacked by a lion by promptly going out and shooting the beast. Everyone in camp rejoices, but that is not the last we hear from that part of the animal kingdom.
For it soon develops that, in a startling departure from the loner etiquette of the breed, a further pair of man-eating lions is stalking the workers. Smart enough to start their own jungle Mensa chapter, these fearless beasts attack in broad daylight and, impatient eaters that they are, go right into tents to drag off their dinners. Worse than that, like thrill-seeker rebels without a cause, these lions apparently kill just for kicks. It's no wonder that terrified locals name them "The Ghost" and "The Darkness" and consider them devils who've been sent to stop the white man from owning the world.
It's at this moment, when the lions are closing in on triple figures in the kill department, that a legendary American hunter named Remington (Douglas) magically appears on the scene. A grumpy veteran of the Civil War who understands that he has "a gift" for killing, Remington dresses like a renegade hippie and doesn't travel without an escort of fierce Samburu warriors.
As card-carrying macho hombres, Patterson and Remington have to butt heads for a while before they get down to the serious business of tracking the big cats. Screenwriter William Goldman has them glibly bantering back and forth like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a predictable conceit that, depending on your point of view, is either endearing or clunky.
Since it is Douglas' production company that made "The Ghost and the Darkness," it's likely that he fancied the opportunity to play this kind of traditional he-man. Ditto for Kilmer, who also gets to be brave and try out an Irish accent in his spare time.
A lot of work, including multiple close-ups of fierce roars, has gone into making the offending lions as impressive as possible, with five real-life beasts helped out by masters of animatronics and computer wizardry.
Though these man-eaters of Tsavo really existed (their mummified remains are on exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago), they did not have the glorious manes of their movie substitutes. And even though "The Ghost and the Darkness" (which shares its plot with 1952's 3-D "Bwana Devil") doggedly insists on its fidelity to facts, the character of Remington is apparently an invention. It's that kind of a movie.
The Ghost and the Darkness, 1996. R, for some violence and gore involving animal attacks. Constellation Films presents a Douglas/Reuther production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Stephen Hopkins. Producers Gale Anne Hurd, Paul Radin, A. Kitman Ho. Executive producers Michael Douglas, Steven Reuther. Screenplay William Goldman. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Editors Robert Brown, Steve Mirkovich. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Stuart Wurtzel. Art directors Giles Masters, Malcolm Stone. Set decorator Hilton Rosemarin. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. Michael Douglas as Remington. Val Kilmer as John Patterson. Bernard Hill as Dr. Hawthorne. John Kani as Samuel. Tom Wilkinson as Beaumont. Brian McCardie as Starling. Henry Cele as Mahina. Om Puri as Abdullah. Emily Mortimer as Helena Patterson.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times