Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With a new Tom Clancy movie, Without Remorse, premiering on Amazon Prime, we’re looking back on other Hollywood adaptations of mass paperback novels, a.k.a. so-called airport fiction.
Like the toothy T. rex, Jurassic Park towered over the many Michael Crichton adaptations that made their way into multiplexes in the ’90s and early 2000s. Many struggled to stave off anonymity (see: Barry Levinson’s inertly stylish Sphere), but ironically, one of the most enjoyable entries in the Crichton-mania cycle is the one that feels the most like a bungled Steven Spielberg take-off: Congo, a zany update of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines for the telecom age that was directed by Frank Marshall, co-founder of Amblin and producer of, among other things, Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
Obviously, it’s far from the purified two-fisted pulp of Indiana Jones. But any film that gives an Eastern-European-accented Tim Curry (playing a character named Herkermer Homolka) multiple opportunities to say “the lost city of Zinj” understands a thing or two about B-movie pleasures. In Congo, we find such delectably junky ingredients as lasers, mutant killer apes, animatronic hippos, a volcano, and Joe Don Baker in the role of a greedy industrialist. Most memorably, the film features a martini-drinking, cigar-smoking gorilla that speaks in a computer voice with the aid of a sign-language-interpreting high-tech glove.
What more does a movie need? Decent direction? Marshall’s is flatfooted, and it’s all too easy to imagine what a marginal talent might have done with the same material—or, for that matter, how the film might have worked without its dull protagonists, the primatologist Dr. Elliott (Dylan Walsh) and the former CIA operative Dr. Ross (Laura Linney). Instead, Congo rides on the shoulders of its supporting cast, beginning with Ernie Hudson, who has a blast playing the charismatic guide Monroe Kelly, the film’s equivalent to Haggard’s Allan Quatermain. Kelly is hired by Ross, Elliott, and Homolka to take them, for conflicting reasons, to the same remote location in Zaire, known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Honestly, Hudson probably deserved top billing.
Elsewhere, there’s the aforementioned Curry and Baker; Delroy Lindo and Joe Pantoliano as corrupt operators; Bruce Campbell, Grant Heslov, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and, briefly, John Hawkes. Though advertised prior to release as a thriller, Congo is closer to a camp comedy; the characterizations seem to recognize that—Hollywood budget aside—this is ultimately a movie with a bunch of gorilla suits. There are goofy line readings aplenty and molten lava in the climax. At one point, Hudson parachutes out of an airplane with the talking gorilla strapped to his chest; said plane is then blown up by a heat-seeking missile. Is Congo a good film? It’s certainly a good time.