Michael Crichton writes suspense thrillers. Quite successful suspense thrillers that get turned into even more successful movies. At least up to now.
For the makers of "Congo" see things differently. They view Crichton, if this maladroit effort is to be believed, as the creator of jokey adventure farces that generate as much tension as an America's Cup race on a calm day. There have been worse ideas around town, but not many.
Given the success of "Jurassic Park" and "Disclosure," it is difficult to work up sympathy for the prolific Crichton, but the mishmash that director Frank Marshall, screenwriter John Patrick Shanley and the rest of the "Congo" company have made of his work makes you want to reach out in commiseration.
Not only have bothersome plot changes been made, but the entire tone of the book has been transformed from tension to tongue-in-cheek with dismal results. Even the waning episodes of "Ramar of the Jungle" seem like models of dramatic construction compared to what is visible here.
The clumsiness of the effort notwithstanding, it's not difficult to see what "Congo" had in mind, for both director Marshall and his producing partner Kathleen Kennedy worked with Steven Spielberg on "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the two subsequent Indiana Jones pictures.
Not satisfied with Crichton's combination of "King Kong," "King Solomon's Mines" and trendy science (the book lists more than 60 titles in its "References" section), they've tried to combine action with humor a la Indy with uniformly wretched results.
Once it gets sorted out, "Congo's" core plot involves several characters with diverse motives who end up on the same charter plane to Africa's heart, the Congo region:
* Karen Ross (Laura Linney) of communications giant TraviCom is searching--who knows why--for flawless blue diamonds as well as her ex-fiance, the son of surly boss R.B. Travis (Joe Don Baker), mysteriously lost on a similar mission.
* Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh), a gentle, tree-hugging primatologist who feels so guilty about having taught a gorilla named Amy to talk that he has decided to return the creature to her jungle home.
* Herkermer Homolka (the reliable Tim Curry), a self-described Romanian humanitarian who is in reality an adventurer searching for the lost city of Zinj, the site of King Solomon's fabled diamond mines.
Under the guidance of Monroe Kelly (Ernie Hudson), who, in a typically feeble line of dialogue explains, "I'm your great white hunter, though I happen to be black," this group is fated to encounter a bunch of apes with bad attitudes that place their plans and their lives in considerable jeopardy.
Summarized this way, "Congo" sounds acceptable because it doesn't indicate how flabby the film's execution is. Screenwriter Shanley, a well-known playwright and an Oscar winner for "Moonstruck," must have dozed through the creation of this one, filled as it is with soggy retorts and plot points that range from preposterous to plainly incomprehensible.
Not much better are "Congo's" numerous performing apes, which, despite the best efforts of makeup and visual effects master Stan Winston, are transparently people in state-of-the-art monkey suits. And once the nasty gorillas that have been hinted at since the film's opening moments finally appear, they come off more like bad-tempered Pomeranians than worthy successors to King Kong.
Every once in a while, "Congo" remembers it's supposed to be exciting and shovels some off-putting violence onto the screen, like having a character hit by a tossed eyeball. And the film rarely misses an opportunity to treat Africa and Africans in an insulting and cliched manner. It's yet another baffling element in a more than usual disappointing film.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for jungle adventure terror and action and brief strong language. Times guidelines: Watch out for that flying eyeball.
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'Congo' Dylan Walsh: Peter Elliot Laura Linney: Karen Ross Ernie Hudson: Monroe Kelly Tim Curry: Herkermer Homolka Grant Heslov: Richard Joe Don Baker: R.B. Travis A Kennedy/Marshall production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Frank Marshall. Producers Kathleen Kennedy, Sam Mercer. Executive producer Frank Yablans. Screenplay John Patrick Shanley, based on the novel by Michael Crichton. Cinematographer Allen Daviau. Editor Anne V. Coates. Costumes Marilyn Matthews. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design J. Michael Riva. Art director Richard Holland. Set decorator Lisa Fischer. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.