The wife and I decided to celebrate the birthday of our mutual idol/love interest Tim Curry by viewing CONGO (1995) on Netflix Instant, a film I had never seen before but was cautiously intrigued by mostly due to my wife’s go-to impression of tapping her chest and chiming “I’m Amy!” whenever the subject of the movie came up. This isn’t a star vehicle for Curry by far, but an actor of the British baddie’s status doesn’t need a terrible amount of room to leave an impression on the viewer with those piercing, saucer-sized eyes and rich baritone that sounds like the personified voice of black leather sex. It’s Stan Winston’s impressive mechanical gorillas that are the star attraction here, but it’s a credit to him, director Frank Marshall, and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (adapting Michael Crichton’s novel) that it doesn’t ever feel like the simians are trying to hog the whole spotlight or that they’re the only reason the film was made in the first place… like with, say, JURASSIC PARK.
After an expedition in the African jungle meets with a mysterious end, diamond magnate Joe Don Baker orders one of his top experts (Laura Linney) to find out what happened to the team, one of their number being Baker’s son and Linney’s fiancee Bruce Campbell. She teams up with two mop-headed college students (Dylan Walsh and Grant Heslov) who have successfully trained a wild gorilla to use American Sign Language with a mechanical armband that gives her spoken expression through an electronic voicebox. Walsh and Heslov have determined that Amy longs to be home again and take her back to Tanzania with the help of a Romanian philanthropist (Curry) and Linney’s resources. Once they’ve touched down in hostile Zaire–a bordering country in governmental upset that’s just as dangerous as the wilds of the jungle–they meet their charismatic guide (Ernie Hudson, who had his brains eaten by a tutu-wearing ape in the TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode “Food for Thought”). Barely escaping the gunpower of the Zaire militants, the team comes to the site of the first group’s disappearance, a stone’s throw away from the legendary city of Zinj, the site of King Solomon’s bountiful diamond mines. Trouble is, the treasure is jealously guarded by a troop of rabid, ghostly white apes who don’t take kindly to visitors one bit.
Marshall shows that his time as producer for the INDIANA JONES films wasn’t all for naught, giving the jungle scenes and especially the finale in the crumbling temple of Solomon a sense of the steamy, thrilling adventure that made those pictures such a success. CONGO isn’t quite as slick as those A-productions, but it’s surprisingly adept at suspense and the script by Shanley (MOONSTRUCK, DOUBT) is much more than filler linking action-packed set-pieces as is so often the case with these types of stories. (There’s even a pretty good joke about Kafka in the first third.) For the most part, the script is especially good in how it introduces certain themes and inverts conventions without feeling the need to point them out for us. (The exception to this being Hudson’s comments on how his skin color and his status as expedition leader make for an “ironic” mix.)
Chief among these is Linney’s status as the team’s true leader. Her dominance is frequently demonstrated throughout the story, such as when she cannily detracts heat-seeking missiles from striking the team’s plane by shooting flares out of the vessel. And in the end it is she who gets to tote the heavy artillery like the typical macho hero, quipping to Hudson “Put ’em on the endangered species list!” in true tough guy fashion as she takes aim at the white gorillas with her diamond-fitted laser gun to save the Dylan-in-distress. Thankfully, Shanley is never compelled to have the male characters comment on Linney’s strength and resourcefulness with condescending astonishment (“You’re pretty smart… for a woman!”). Linney simply kicks ass and no one says differently, as it should be.
The film is not without its faults (one character mentions sulfur fumes in the air as he holds a lit flare aloft), but it’s unexpectedly well done and really not deserving of the critical damnation that it continues to receive. At its heart CONGO is a Lost World tale in the Haggard tradition fitted with Crichton’s technological gizmos and corrupt corporations, with some small nods to KING KONG like the attacking of the raft that swaps out the hungry Apatosaurus for a pissed-off hippo. The killer apes, a mixture of Winston’s robotics and good old fashioned men-in-suits, are convincing in both their appearances, their ravaging of the party capped off by an erupting volcano that ends the monsters’ reign in raging hellfire, as it should be.