Saturday, April 7, 2012

"The Skulls" (2000)

Starring Joshua Jackson, Paul Walker and Leslie Bibb
Written by John Pogue
Directed by Rob Cohen
Rated PG-13 - Language, sex, violence
Running Time: 107 Minutes

Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson) is a working-class orphan struggling to get through Ivy League college and then figure out a way to pay for law school.  He banks on being invited to join a secret society known as the Skulls in order to afford Harvard Law.  His best friends Will (Hill Harper) and Chloe (Leslie Bibb), whom Luke has a crush on, are not supportive of Luke's plan.

But Luke is offered membership in the Skulls, which he greedily accepts, putting him on the outs with his friends.  But within the organization, he makes new ones: Caleb Mandrake (Paul Walker), the cocky son of powerful Judge Litten Mandrake (Craig T. Nelson) the current chairman of the Skulls.  The Skulls are set up with a unique buddy system called "soul mates", and Luke and Caleb are partnered together.  Litten's soul mate, Senator Ames Levritt (William Petersen) takes a liking to Luke, and offers to mentor him in the ways of the Skulls.

Luke's life begins to turn around - he's pre-accepted to the law school of his choice, large sums of cash appear in his bank account, and he's given an expensive car to drive.  Not long after, Will is found dead of an apparent suicide, but the police learn that he was murdered and the suicide staged.  Luke discovers that Will was doing an expose of the Skulls for the student newspaper when he was killed, and comes to believe it it Caleb who is responsible, and decides he needs to take down the Skulls to get justice and to take his life back.

But the Skulls are an organization comprised of powerful men.  They control the school, the police, and everyone Luke might turn to for help will be in danger.  Who can he trust?  How can he gain leverage over the most powerful men in America, or perhaps the entire world?

"The Skulls" is a thoroughly ludicrous film.  There's nary a moment in it that's not almost entirely absurd. For a film based on the premise of secret societies, these groups are anything but secret.  Their logo is prominently displayed on the roof of their evil headquarters, which everyone on campus seems aware of.  As part of their initiation ritual, the Skulls recruits must perform a frat prank on another secret society - which everyone also seems aware of the location.  Even more, each member is given an obvious branding on their wrist, advertising membership on every occasion they don't wear a watch.

The script is full of weird logic gaps like this, some of which make it convenient for the plot to advance, and some of which simply don't make sense at all.  Why Luke is even picked to become a Skull is a total mystery.  Because he's captain of the rowing team?  So what? Does that make him one of the power elite somehow?  He can't even afford to go to law school, and spent most of his youth as a thief and a burglar with his low-life friends (who he of course recruits to help him take down the Skulls in the second half of the film).

If there are two things that make "The Skulls" entertaining at all its trying to guess what absurd new development will occur next and watching the over-eager cast throw everything they have into such a middling script.  This is a film full of people shouting and crying and delivering very declarative statements to try and make things seem far more dramatic than they really are.  Joshua Jackson is a likable presence that helps keep things lively.  Paul Walker plays at being tortured, not really succeeding.  Leslie Bibb is just sort of there as Luke's love interest who slowly becomes more involved.  The mid-film revelation that she's actually in love with him is laughable, but they play it so earnestly...

The rest of the film is populated with familiar TV faces like Craig T. Nelson, William Petersen, Christopher McDonald as the school Provost and organization thug (really, when was the last time you saw the Yale provost chasing people down and beating them?), Hill Harper as Luke's best friend, and Steve Harris as a police detective investigating Will's death.  They all do decent enough jobs with the ridiculous material given them, which is all we can really ask.

"The Skulls" is enjoyable if only because it's so bad.  Though it has some decently directed sequences of action and suspense, nothing about the script is believable and the actors overplay their roles to the max.