Friday June 4, 1999
Anthony Hopkins may no longer hold the title of World's Greatest English-Speaking Film Actor (the un-Oscared Ian McKellen would seem the better candidate, given Hopkins' recent, careless choices), but he's still a weighty, penetrating presence. Cuba Gooding Jr., conversely, could dance across a carpet of potato chips without displacing any salt. So while their matchup may not be quite heaven-sent, it seems at least to be the stuff of weirdly intriguing dynamics.
But the real marriage within "Instinct," director Jon Turtletaub's primatology-meets-psychology howler, is among movies, not men. Hopkins' portrayal of the brilliant but deadly Ethan Powell--mute after his imprisonment for mass murder in the jungles of Rwanda--is an all-too-obvious echo of Hannibal Lechter; his look, for that matter, is straight out of "Mask of Zorro" (with a touch of Papa Hemingway).
Mostly, though, "Instinct" is a greatest-hits collection of plot devices and emotional cues from such films as "Gorillas in the Mist" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," making it something of a trained chimp, one that apes a lot of good movies while making itself look ridiculous. And as long as we're cataloging "Instinct's" debts, let's not forget "The Miracle Worker," "Cool Hand Luke" and "The Snake Pit."
The prison where Powell is being held is an underfunded hellhole for the criminally insane, directed by the bureaucratized Warden Keefer (John Aylward) and muscled by Dacks (John Ashton) and his gang of thuggish jail guards. George Dzundza, impersonating an unwashed bag of laundry, is Dr. John Murray, the worn-out resident psychiatrist who's resigned himself to order over healing.
Enter Theo Caulder (Gooding), go-getter shrink with just enough idealism to temper his overwhelming ambition when he confronts the career-making case of Powell. Of course, not only is Powell too cagey for the feel-good mind-bending of Caulder and his mentor, Ben Hillard (Donald Sutherland, doing his now-patented Mephistophelean shtick), but his "miraculous" work among mountain gorillas in Rwanda--and his own heart of darkness--have given him an insight into human behavior that has turned him silent. That is, of course, until he meets Caulder, who touches something in the blackened soul of Hopkins' brooding ape man.
That any of this needed to be remotely believable--the setup, the relationship or the bloodless revolution Powell inspires within the prison population--seems to have eluded Turtletaub, director of "Phenomenon," "3 Ninjas" and "While You Were Sleeping."
Skirting gracefully around the mixed-race romance blooming between Theo and Powell's estranged-but-devoted daughter Lyn (a very nice Maura Tierney), "Instinct" undermines its own tension with cheap laughs, mostly at the expense of the psychiatric prisoners. When Powell reminiscences about his "terrifying and wonderful" encounters with the silver-back gorillas, what we get is neither terrifying nor particularly wonderful (although the special effects are pretty convincing). But Turtletaub has no idea when to stop and the emotional manipulation spins completely out of control.
Gooding is an attractive actor who brings a lot of energy even to this underwritten (or perhaps just underdeveloped) role. You might say that Hopkins could have phoned his performance in, but who would have answered? Maybe director Milos Forman ("Cuckoo's Nest"), whose pockets have been picked most greedily by "Instinct," but who is hardly its onlyvictim.
Instinct, 1999. R for some intense violent behavior. Touchstone Pictures and Spyclass Entertainment present a Barbara Doyla and Michael Taylor production. A Jon Turtletaub film. Directed by John Turtletaub. Produced by Michael Taylor and Barbara Boyle. Screen story and screenplay by Gerald DiPego. Executive producers Wolfgang Petersen, Gail Katz. Co-producers Richard Lerner, Brian Doubleday, Christina Steinberg. Director of photography Philippe Rousselot. Production design Garreth Stover. Editor Richard Francis-Bruce. Special character effects Stan Winston Studio. Music Danny Elfman. Running time; 2 hours, 8 minutes. Anthony Hopkins as Ethan Powell. Cuba Gooding Jr. as Theo Caulder. Donald Sutherland as Ben Hillard. Maura Tierney as Lyn Powell. George Dzundza as Dr. John Murray.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times