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Sometimes an actor can make you believe an impossible plot, buy into prefab emotions and connect you to a character just because he’s playing it. Anthony Hopkins is one of those miracle workers. Hell, he almost made Meet Joe Black bearable. Sir Tony carries the day again in this uneasy blend of Gorillas in the Mist and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He portrays Ethan Powell, a family man and celebrated primatologist who is noted for his study of the mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

Instinct gives us a first look at Ethan that tells a different story: He’s a scruffy, silent, bug-eyed loony busting heads at a Florida airport in an attempt to escape being institutionalized for killing two Rwandan park rangers. Ambitious psychiatrist Theo Cauler (Cuba Gooding Jr.) thinks he can make his career by getting through to Ethan. There might be a best seller in it as well.

A bigger question: Is there a movie in it? Hopkins and Gooding Jr. certainly perform beyond the call of melodramatic duty. And director Jon Turteltaub (Phenomenon) sets up the conflict so that danger looks ready to spring. It’s the script by Gerald DiPego (Message in a Bottle) that goes soft and spongy like a marshmallow. Phenomenon, also written by DiPego, suffered a similar loss of nerve that only John Travolta’s artful performance helped to redeem. Hopkins roars magnificently, but Instinct renders the apes as cuddly as a Disney cartoon family, the inmates as saner than their jailers, and the killer and the careerist as essentially good at heart. And so a film that begins with a glimpse of hell ends as a Hallmark card.


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