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An adventure, but no excitement

Great attention is paid to detail in the latest 'King Solomon's Mines,' but that doesn't make it entertaining.

June 11, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

The fourth screen version of H. Rider Haggard's 1885 adventure novel "King Solomon's Mines" -- that's about one every 40 years on the average -- will be unveiled to the world Saturday night on the Hallmark Channel. Like many of the "Classics Illustrated" adaptations of producers Robert Halmi Sr. and/or Jr. (Jr. in this case), it is expensive, long and rather dull and takes its material too seriously by half, even as it attempts to improve on it.

The film, which stars turn-of-the-'90s pop-cult icon Patrick Swayze as adventurer Allan Quatermain, was shot in South Africa with thousands of extras (2,146 of them, according to Hallmark) and much attention to period detail, tribal dress and customs, and the niceties of the Zulu tongue -- all of which is honorable but not in itself entertaining.

The scenery is pretty, and so are the wild animals, but MGM raised more hair in the old "Tarzan" movies with a jungle of potted palms and grainy stock footage of charging lions than director Steve Boyum ("Timecop 2: The Berlin Decision") does with the real thing.

Though it follows its basic lines -- Quatermain leads an expedition to find a missing person, and perhaps incidentally, scoop up a few diamonds, crossing a desert into a lost kingdom whose true ruler turns out to be one of his bearers -- the new mounting is no more mindful of the original text than were its predecessors. (The first, from 1937, featured a singing Paul Robeson.) It has been stuffed with new subplots and characters, and almost all the original characters have been significantly altered.

To be sure, the book as written would be troublesome to film: Apart from the fact that it requires a range of locations and a level of stagecraft beyond the reach of even a big-budget cable TV movie, it is somewhat old-fashioned (though not disrespectful) as it regards Africa and Africans. Much of it is nonsense. But it is a corking tale on the page nevertheless -- the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" of its time and indeed its very template.

As in the versions before it, Quatermain is made younger and more conventionally heroic than he is in the book, and given a love interest -- it is possibly more than coincidence that the filmmakers have cast Alison Doody, the femme fatale of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Screenwriter Steven H. Berman ("Once Upon a Christmas," "Twice Upon a Christmas") has also added a band of pesky Russians to the mix (this time it is not Hitler after the Lost Ark but the czar seeking the Stone of the Ancestors) and a dangerous rival. There are gunfights and fistfights, and the traditional booby-trapped subterranean treasure house.

An amusing philosophical fatalist in the book, Quatermain has been made pained and sensitive in a way that modern viewers can "relate to," which I believe is the technical phrase. (Gratuitous motivation is a common feature of Halmi productions -- their "Alice in Wonderland" was about stage fright.) He has been given psychology, when before he merely had character. Bedeviled by guilt over the death of his wife and fretful over the absence of his son, whom he must ransom from the custody of his in-laws, he's not looking for adventure but a home.

In his first real TV role in the 18 years since "North and South II," Swayze makes faces that suggest a different range of pathologies, from mild constipation to painful sunburn. He looks odd here -- sort of ... waxy -- and so thoroughly stiff is his delivery that one might well imagine it to be a deliberate acting choice. Perhaps wisely, he does not attempt a British accent.

Doody doesn't do much with her part, for which the role must be at least partly held to blame. Roy Marsden (best known as P.D. James' detective Adam Dalgliesh) has no better luck as her guardian uncle and the butt of the film's occasional spasms of comic relief.

As Umbopa, the tribal king returning to reclaim his crown -- it's "Lord of the Rings," on top of everything else -- Sidede Onyulo has a bearing almost unbearably noble; it would be better if his dialogue did not consist almost entirely of gnomic remarks like, "You have a strong voice within you; listen, trust, you will find what you seek." ("I think he's sad," Doody says of him, "the kind of sadness that keeps him from sharing his life with others.")

The villains -- notably Hakim Kae Kazim as Twala the usurper and Nick Borraine as Ivan the Russian -- have an easier time of it, as is not uncommon, evil being more amenable than good to cliche.

*

'King Solomon's Mines'

Where: Hallmark Channel.

When: Saturday at 5 p.m., repeats at 7 and 9 p.m.

Rating: The network has rated the movie TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).

Patrick Swayze...Allan Quatermain

Alison Doody...Elizabeth Maitland

Roy Marsden...Captain Good

Sidede Onyulo...Umbopa

Hakim Kae Kazim...Twala

Executive producers, Robert Halmi Jr. and Larry Levinson. Director, Steve Boyum. Writer, Steven H. Berman, from the novel by H. Rider Haggard.

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