Not so long ago, The Skulls would have starred Tom Cruise -- but in which role? He could have been either lead; the one he didn't choose could have landed in the lap of James Spader or Rob Lowe. One can easily imagine Cruise as Luke McNamara, the beefy, rough-and-tumble townie with good intentions who succumbs to greed and egoism and joins one of Yale's secret, privileged societies against his better judgment. After all, Cruise has played such a role before: The Firm, released in 1993, is but one film from which The Skulls steals some of its design. In fact, there are moments during The Skulls when it's as though you're watching a shrunken version of The Firm, with whole scenes lifted, repeated, then gutted. Sometimes, the movie feels like a shadow. (Other points of reference: The Lords of Discipline, The Star Chamber, The Brotherhood of the Bell.)
It also wouldn't be so difficult to see Cruise as Caleb Mandrake, the purebred son of a judge whose father has covered for him his whole life, allowing him to shirk responsibility for every bad thing he's ever done. Caleb's the kid who skips out on life's check; his piercing blue eyes and granite good looks are currency enough. The role is almost too perfect for someone like Cruise, who only makes movies to exorcise his daddy fixation. That Craig T. Nelson plays Caleb's father is spot-on: He hasn't been so imperious since he coached Cruise in All the Right Moves 17 years ago. Cruel Bastard is the role Nelson was born to play after wasting so many years cast as the soft-hearted, soft-in-the-middle sap.
But there is no Tom Cruise, or anyone else so charismatic, in The Skulls. Its whole cast belongs on Starz!, not the big screen. The Skulls relies upon one of the blandest, doughiest leads asked to carry a movie since Sean Astin suited up as Rudy. As Luke, Joshua Jackson (Pacey Witter on Dawson's Creek) is so ordinary you forget what he looks like from one scene to the next. He has one facial expression -- blank. Paul Walker, as Luke's secret-society soul mate Caleb, is no more communicative. His past as a model betrays him. He doesn't act; he poses. Perhaps that's why there's no terror or tension to The Skulls: Its actors possess the impact of a wet napkin.
And it's not as though John Pogue's script gives them much to work with. A former Yalie himself, Pogue has set out to expose the school's secret societies (its most famous is the Skull & Bones, of which George W. Bush, his old man, and the CIA's founders were members) by revealing them as treacherous cults that consider themselves beyond the laws of mere mortals. "A Skull above all else," is the creed by which they literally live and die. According to Pogue, they will kill to protect their secret -- and even betray their own, if need be. So secretive is their organization, you have no idea who belongs to it or who does the Skulls' bidding. They've managed to take over the world, turning even the good guys (local cops, the school's provost, anyone) into pod people. Intentionally or not, Pogue and director Rob Cohen have remade Invasion of the Body Snatchers and set it in New Haven, Connecticut. Beware what lurks beneath the ivy.
Luke is the innocent corrupted by good intentions: He wants to go to law school but can't afford the tuition (he already owes Yale about $100,000). His only hope is to be asked to join the Skulls, who would frown upon inviting such an unwashed pup were it not for Luke's accomplishments as the captain of the crew team (he's led Yale to three straight Ivy League titles -- hurrah!). His best friend, Will (Hill Harper, apparently the only black student at Yale), loathes the Skulls: "Anything elite and secret can't be good," he warns. The third member of their threesome, daddy's little rich girl Chloe (Leslie Bibb, a regular on the WB's Popular), likewise tries to dissuade her platonic pal from joining. But Luke, who's silently in love with Chloe, shrugs her off. He needs the Skulls' power and prestige if he's to escape his impoverished, parentless past.
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And so he makes the Faustian bargain that allows him to penetrate the society's guarded walls: He'll take their money ($20,000, deposited in his bank account), their cars (he gets a restored Thunderbird), their tailored clothes, even their women. In return, he must wear their brand (beneath a freebie Breitling watch, a rather nice trade-off) and keep his mouth shut when Will, the school newspaper's would-be Woodward, turns up dead after breaking into the Skulls' Gothic sanctuary and threatening to divulge its secrets. (Among them is a wall emblazoned with the word "WAR" and a waterlogged basement full of coffins, in which the members are "reborn." The whole thing looks like the set from Young Frankenstein.)
But Luke, of course, can't abide by such a bargain, so he enlists his townie buds to break and enter into the Skulls' lair to discover who committed the crime and how. With that, the film becomes Mission: Impossible, replete with high-tech gadgets and inexplicable scenarios. Suddenly, the film goes so over the top it betrays whatever subtle paranoia it creates during its first half. It's so laughable it's almost parody, JFK turned up to 11. It degenerates into a series of car chases, shoot-outs and cornball love scenes in steamy bathrooms, the likes of which even Zalman King would sneer at. You can almost see Pogue's breathless notes in the script's margins: See, I told you these people are evil!
But Joshua Jackson can no more communicate trepidation than can a plain doughnut. When he's drugged and sent to a mental hospital by the Skulls (a place named Sanctuary Psychiatric Institute -- how subtle), he finally seems in his element; his is a face made to be doped up and covered in drool. Pairing him with Leslie Bibb is like pouring Perrier into Pellegrino: She renders the phrase "love interest" an oxymoron. As the senator who may or may not be among the few good Skulls, William Petersen speaks in a Southern accent doused in a mint julep; you half expect him to get swept up in the arms of Rhett Butler. And Craig T. Nelson wears his evil on his upper lip, in the guise of a caterpillar mustache he all but licks incessantly; all he lacks is a pinkie ring. But at least he seems to be having a good time; at least he gets it.
Any film that climaxes with a flintlock duel must surely be aware of its overheated intentions, but The Skulls is made by men so humorless, they're not only unaware of the gag but are utterly convinced it's the first time anyone's telling it. It has all the charm of a lecture -- so much so, the Washington Monthly and Slate's Timothy Noah have taken to insisting that the branding scene is included to "embarrass" George W. (though the Skull & Bones never branded its members, the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, to which the Shrub also belonged, did). Sometimes, you wonder if the whole world's not spending its free time in a chat room with Oliver Stone.