Spanking the Monkey

What summer movie season would be complete without at least one film based on a Michael Crichton novel? Welcome to Congo, a shamelessly derivative jungle adventure that attempts to cross Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark with King Kong but ultimately feels more like a bad Tarzan movie A minus the loinclothed hero.

The story begins at the base of Mt. Mukenko, a volcano located somewhere in deepest, darkest Africa. As disinterested ostriches blink, gnus sprint by, giraffes peer around treetops, and a listless lion yawns and lolls about (perhaps he got an advance peek at the script), a caravan of white people wearing baseball caps and bright orange jackets appears. The humans pitch camp and quickly find what they've come looking for -- a flawless diamond! Caravan-leader Charles relays the good news to his boss back in Houston via satellite video transmission, giving us our first exposure to cool state-of-the-art technology so essential to films made from Crichton books. But he cuts the communication short because another member of the caravan just has made an even cooler discovery that he wants Charles to check out. What could be cooler than a flawless diamond, you wonder, as does Charles's boss. The caravan leader signs off promising to look into this latest discovery and report back to Houston in one hour. Needless to say, neither Charles nor the caravan ever is heard from again.

Meanwhile in an arbitrary plot line that has next-to-nothing to do with that of the lost caravan, a dedicated primatologist named Peter Elliot and his loyal, long-suffering assistant have perfected technology enabling an adorable little ape named Amy to converse with humans. Elliot unveils his amazing discovery during a seminar attended by dumfounded colleagues who gasp "Animals can talk!" A mysterious Romanian (played by Tim Curry) witnesses the demonstration as well. Amy the ape may not be a real gorilla (a human actress in a super-sophisticated monkey suit did the honors), but she's far more convincing than Curry, who apparently has only two acting styles: campy and campier.

So a second expedition takes off for Mt. Mukenko (which is, needless to say, about to blow at any minute!). The official purpose of the mission is for Peter and his assistant to study Amy in the wild, maybe use her as a bridge to communicate with other animals. Curry foots most of the bill and tags along because he secretly hopes the three of them will lead him to a mythical forgotten city and the hidden treasures of King Solomon's mines. Charles's ex-fiancee, Karen Ross (who works for the same company Charles did and who is one of those only-in-Hollywood creations -- a beautiful-yet-incredibly-resourceful communications expert with CIA training who can quote Yeats and fire a mean laser with equal aplomb), inveigles her way aboard as well by paying for airplane fuel Curry cannot afford. She wants to find out what happened to her man, and maybe retrieve the berdiamond in the bargain.

In Africa the unlikely quintet hook up with Monroe Kelly, a macho mercenary adventurer who will serve as their guide. Ernie Hudson eventually won the latter part after Sean Connery backed out. That's right, Ernie Hudson. The fourth Ghostbuster. While it is doubtful that even Connery's august presence could have rescued this film, casting Hudson in his stead smacks of throwing in the towel. The macho black American actor affects a cartoonish debonair English accent (at least I think it was supposed to be English; your guess is as good as mine) that borders on parody. (Sample dialogue, Kelly to Elliot: "I run a few guns. You sons-of-bitches ruin the world!")

Our half-baked half-dozen overcome jungle perils ranging from warring political factions to crazed attack hippos. And no picnic awaits them at Mt. Mukenko, either. More like killer apes, tumbling boulders, and lava floes. Rumble, rumble, growl, growl.

Johnny Quest did it better. Yet as hackneyed and silly as the story line is, a few moments of truly inspired spoofing punctuate the otherwise predictable proceedings. They sparkle like, well, flawless diamonds on the jungle floor. Hudson sporadically tosses off droll one-liners that partially compensate for his miscasting. "Relax," he reassures Elliot when they meet. "You're in better hands than you should be." Smart, anarchic comedy explodes when you least expect it. While under interrogation by a bullying soldier, Elliot's timid assistant whines, "This is pure Kafka." The soldier, thinking the prisoner is divulging top-secret information, screams, "Who's Kafka?"

The yuks don't come often enough to redeem the entire movie, but they are the best thing about Congo, especially given the picture's shockingly cheesy special effects. Amy the ape is great, but the exotic foliage looks phony, the killer gorillas resemble Halloween party guests who all rented monkey suits at the same discount costume shop, and the big climactic volcanic eruption is strictly Ed Wood. Forget Jurassic Park and Steven Spielberg; Congo's special effects are more in Irwin Allen's league.

The film's ability to laugh at itself suggests an edgy, sarcastic guiding intelligence. It's a bizarre paradox: hip gags that lampoon standard jungle action-movie conventions within a generic find-the-lost-city-before-the-volcano-blows scenario. It's as if David Letterman snuck into the editing room and inserted a few gags as a prank. Congo could have become so much more than just another boring, by-the-numbers tropical nonadventure. It could have been the ultimate parody of that genre, a sort of African Tremors. But producers don't shell out Michael Crichton megabucks for satire. They want summer blockbusters. For all its chest-thumping hype and Taco Bell merchandising tie-ins, Congo never finds its way out of the bush.

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