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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
The Skulls (2000)
1 Star

Directed by Rob Cohen
Cast: Joshua Jackson, Paul Walker, Leslie Bibb, Hill Harper, Craig T. Nelson, William Petersen, Christopher McDonald, Steve Harris.
2000 – 106 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for profanity, violence, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 1, 2000.

Rob Cohen's "The Skulls" is a handsomely produced disaster of a movie, filled with such ludicrous plotting and inconsistencies that it has to be seen to be believed. At least when Universal Pictures hired Shane Hurlbut as the cinematographer, they got their money's worth, which is more than can be said about virtually everyone and everything else involved in the making of this "thriller," a so-called "'The Firm' for teens." The problem is that that 1993 Tom Cruise-starrer was also a dumbed-down version of a John Grisham novel. Drop its IQ down yet another 50 points, transform its characters into college students, and what you are left with is "The Skulls."

Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson) is a former street kid whose key to being accepted at the prestigious Yale University is his expertise on the college's famed rowing team. Planning to go to law school after graduation, he is unsure of how he is going to manage it, considering he has twenty bucks in the bank, considerably less than the annual $45,000 tuition fee. Lurking about the campus is a much-talked-about secret society called The Skulls (if it is such a secret, how come everyone knows about it?), to which we are informed at the on-set that at least two of the United States' presidents have been members. Once initiated, there is no exempting, but The Skulls promise inductees unlimited amounts of wealth and fortune, as well as a few trophy women to go along with it.

Despite the warnings of Luke's two best friends, Will (Hill Harper) and Chloe (Leslie Bibb), he is chosen to join The Skulls, and without hesitation, accepts. A pair of new members are chosen to be soul mates, and Luke is partnered with Caleb Mandrake (Paul Walker), whose father, Judge Litten Mandrake (Craig T. Nelson), coincidentally, is the head of the society. Luke is overjoyed to later discover that $20,000 has been added to his bank account, but being a member of The Skulls means inevitably slighting Will and Chloe, whom he is secretly in love with. Then an apparent suicide of someone close to Luke occurs on campus, but evidence points to foul play, and it becomes believed that the victim was murdered. All suspicions of Luke point to The Skulls being involved in a cover-up scheme.

What can be said about "The Skulls" other than it's one of the most unintentionally silly movies so far this year, not to mention one of the worst? The screenplay, by John Pogue, is a real howler, and should never have been given the chance to see the light of day. In one scene, a female character is chased across campus in broad daylight, which conveniently appears to be deserted. In another, Luke is drugged to an almost catatonic state, to the point where saliva is uncontrollably dribbling out the side of his mouth. Then, all of a sudden, out of the blue, he jumps right into a conversation as if nothing had happened. Was he just playing an April Fool's joke on everyone, and decided it would be funny to pretend he was a human vegetable? And who could forget the laughable duel climax, complete with real guns, that takes place in what looked like the courtyard of the school?

The dialogue is no better, with one distressingly stilted scene in which Luke, Will, and Chloe discuss the history of The Skulls, reciting dialogue that not for a second seems natural, but simply an excuse to relay to the audience some background information. "The Skulls" might have at least been funny had director Rob Cohen (who made the far superior 1996 action film, "Daylight") and screenwriter Pogue let the audience know that it was meant as a comedy. To my dismay, however, it appears like the movie is very well attempting to be a serious-minded thriller.

"The Skulls" marks the debut of Joshua Jackson (TV's "Dawson's Creek") in a lead film role, after supporting parts in 1998's "Urban Legend" and 1999's "Cruel Intentions," and it's unfortunate that he had to choose such an unusually bad movie to take that next step in his career. All other actors are handed throwaway roles, except for Paul Walker (1998's "Pleasantville"), who makes next to no impression, and Leslie Bibb (TV's "Popular"), who is the only one in the cast who projects even the slightest hint of intelligence. Bibb has a bright screen presence, but she is surrounded by such inanity that all she can do is struggle to come away from the wreckage unscathed (she succeeds, for the most part).

Worst of all, when "The Skulls" isn't downright awful, it's just a chore to sit through. Dull and oddly outdated, only the lush photography by Hurlbut, accentuating its gorgeous Toronto-based setting, saves the picture from being a surefire cure for insomniacs. On second thought, maybe Universal should have hired someone less accomplished to work as cinematographer. That way, when viewers would fall into a deep slumber for its duration, it would cause them to forget that such an absurd motion picture was actually ever committed to celluloid. It would also save the actors from any further embarrassment.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman