Killer Apes Protecting Diamonds in a lost African city sparked Michael Crichton’s 1980 novel, Congo, written 10 years before he upped the ante from mutant gorillas to cloned dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Steven Spielberg turned that mythic tale into box-office history. Now two longtime Spielberg collaborators, director Frank Marshall (Arachnophobia, Alive) and his producer wife, Kathleen Kennedy (E.T., The Bridges of Madison County), have returned to the Crichton well for a fun go at Congo. Promos for the film make it look like the latest word in megabudget technology. Not quite.
Congo is a throwback to the old-fashioned Saturday-matinee spirit of adventure that infused such flicks of the ’50s and ’60s as King Solomon’s Mines, The Lost Continent and The Lost World. Except for a few weeks of exterior filming near an active volcano in Costa Rica, Marshall and ace cinematographer Allen Daviau (Fearless) shot Congo in L.A on studio sets made of Styrofoam with stunt people running around in gorilla suits. Tech freaks weaned on Terminator and Die Hard movies will be hollering bloody murder. But if you accept Marshall’s playfulness – even a fake-looking lava eruption is part of the game – you are in for a treat.
It also helps that screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) is around to add a comic spin to the front load of exposition it takes to get the plot moving. There are no stars in the cast, but there is lots of energy. Stage actress Laura Linney (Sight Unseen) brings wit and throaty sexiness to Karen Ross, a former CIA agent now in the employ of a greedy tycoon, R.B. Travis (Joe Don Baker), who wants to grab those industrial diamonds from the apes to launch his communications empire. Unlike Laura Dern as the scientist in Jurassic, Linney doesn’t waste any time screaming girlishly in the big, bad jungle. When a verbal assault doesn’t deter unwanted advances, she’s handy with a gun or an elbow to the groin. Nice work.
Linney’s co-star Dylan Walsh (Paul Newman’s son in Nobody’s Fool) has the bimbo role as Peter Elliot, a naive primatologist used by Karen as a cover to to get into Zaire. He has permission to return a domesticated mountain gorilla named Amy to her home. Peter has taught Amy to talk by means of a data glove that translates the sign language she’s learned into human speech. It’s a nifty gimmick, especially when Amy – in her 8-year-old-girl voice – orders a martini as fortification for her flight to Africa.
Also adding laughs are Ernie Hudson as acid-tongued guide Monroe Kelly and superham Tim Curry as Herkermer Homolka, a Romanian villain crazed to find the lost city of Zinj. The action kicks in when the team parachutes into the rain forest to face river rides, gunfights, eye gougings, volcano eruptions, hippo attacks and a climactic ape war that should stir the action crowd. As one character says, “I can feel the money hairs on the back of my neck stand up and go, ‘Woo, woo, woo.’ ” In its nimblest moments, Congo goes past woo, woo, woo to catch a sense of wonder.