GORILLAS IN THE MISS

"Herkermer Homolka; hi, hello." So says Tim Curry's character in Congo, introducing himself with admirable alliteration. Herkermer is a Rumanian fortune hunter obsessed with finding the mines of King Solomon, and his eyes gleam as he makes assertions like, "Thees korilla has seen de Lost Ceety of Zeenj!" Wrapping words like "hieroglyphics" in an accent that Sid Caesar might find exaggerated--it comes out "earogleefigs"--Curry seems to be the only person connected to Congo who saw what he was doing as camp. He was right, of course.

Herkermer attaches himself to an expedition going into the African rain forest, led by an ex-CIA operative (Laura Linney) working for a telecommunications firm. She's in search of a previous expedition that was looking for some whatsit or other essential for a new satellite technology. Also on board is an annoyingly callow young primatologist (Dylan Walsh, Paul Newman's annoyingly callow son in Nobody's Fool) who is returning a captive ape, fluent in sign language, to her birthplace.

Conveniently, on the whole Dark Continent, Herkermer's lost city, the corporation's lost party and the ape's lost youth are all within about half a mile of each other--at the foot of an active volcano. How magnanimous of Walsh, leaving his ape pal in such a location.

Along the way, the adventurers are faced with dangers ranging from corrupt officials to killer hippopotamuses, and when they at last reach the Lost City of Zinj, they find it overrun with a race of white-furred, murderous gorillas. "The meeth of the keeler ape . . . eez true!" intones Herkermer.

Congo's director is Frank Marshall, who, having defamed spiders in his enjoyable horror comedy Arachnophobia, turns here to an even more inoffensive and less hazardous class of creatures to be the bad guys. His best work is in the episodically structured earlier scenes, which build a good, anticipatory head of steam. When at last he trots out his killer apes, it's a bit of a letdown--the scenes of the party under siege don't have the terror and tension they need.

Congo has obvious similarities to the lushly colored jungle adventures of the '50s, like Mogambo, King Solomon's Mines and Watusi, save for the absence of one crucial element: sex. There's no whiff of Ava Gardner-in-sweat-stained-khaki lust to this picture. The chaste atmosphere here is far closer to the boy's-book tone of the vintage Republic serials of the '30s and '40s, like Jungle Girl or Perils of Nyoka. Yet the film is an adaptation of a novel by that master of techno-bunk, Michael Crichton. As with Jurassic Park, once one has cut through the dazzlingly deployed jargon, what you find at the level of true content are clich‚s that might have made Edgar Wallace or Sax Rohmer groan--stuff about how many legends have a basis in fact, and all that.

There's nothing wrong with these cornball conventions, of course, unless part of your come-on as a popular writer is that you're giving us "hard science" tales that explore urgent issues. Any reputable geneticist will tell you that, with current technology, you might as well try to spin a tyrannosaurus rex from straw as generate one through the method Crichton suggests in Jurassic Park. In the same way, Congo contains a line about how the notion of a killer ape "may be politically incorrect, but . . ."

Yes, how unhip of Mother Nature, to get in the way of Crichton's retro fondness for the idea of bloodthirsty gorillas. When the author goes after issues that really are urgently topical, as in Rising Sun and Disclosure, the results are even more irritatingly thin on thought.

To be fair, Congo seems to be Crichton in a somewhat more playful mood (for him), and the screen adapter, John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck), wasn't resisting many temptations, either. Still, the film's a Popsicle served up as if it's mousse.

The actors less shameless than Curry fare far worse. Linney, who's been somewhat wan in previous roles, isn't bad here, but the puffy-cheeked Walsh is stuck with a bummer role. Not only is he a whiny tenderfoot, he has to spend a lot of time interacting stickily with the animatronic ape. Ernie Hudson, playing the smooth, assured safari leader with a touch of a British accent, emerges as the heroic lead. In a world less retro, less Crichtonish than this, the twerpy Walsh would be expendable--Hudson and Linney could fall in love with each other.

 
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