We gave it a C
It’s easy to see why The Ghost and the Darkness appealed to Michael Douglas (who also coexecutive-produced) and Val Kilmer. But the very thing that drew the two actors to this ripping yarn — their enchantment with playing archetypes of male power — is the very thing that undoes their awfully big adventure.
The story — a Jaws about lions, a Legends of the Fall about Africa — is based on a thrilling and terrible bit of history: In 1896, two lions rampaged through a place called Tsavo (the name means a place of slaughter in Swahili) in East Africa, killing more than 130 and bringing British efforts to build a grand bridge to a dead halt. (”The Ghost” and ”the Darkness” were what the Africans called the beasts.) To stop the slaughter, bridge-building engineer Lieut. Col. John Patterson (Kilmer) teamed up with a mysterious and renowned wild game hunter known only as Remington (Douglas). In response, the legend goes, the hunted seemed to set their sights directly on the hunters. The showdown was epic.
In director Stephen Hopkins’ (Blown Away) stiff-jointed telling of the tale, the two very different cats — the one a bronzed, brisk fellow with a movie star’s extraordinarily white teeth, the other a roughed-up, bearded mountain man decked out in Dr. Quinn leather wear — unite, bound by the single-mindedness of their mission, while stereotypical mayhem swirls around them. A trusty and loyal local (South African stage actor John Kani) stands by his bosses, even though he’s very afraid — oh, those locals; a glowering and fearful Muslim (Om Puri from The Jewel in the Crown), the leader of the Indian workers, comes to respect them, even though he’s very distrustful — oh, those people in turbans. But mostly, Kilmer sets his jaw. (”You build bridges, John,” his ideal English wife sighs in William Goldman’s wildly declamatory script. ”You have to go where the rivers are.”) And Douglas swaggers and thrashes about — my, such acting! — a regular Iron John with a Bonanza accent. (”Have you ever failed?” Patterson asks Remington. ”Only in life,” quoth he.) The sight of Douglas boogying along, in his middle-aged way, in a pre-battle dance with a lithe and proud band of Masai warriors is enough to make a moviegoer cringe, and not in fear. C