The Ghost And The Darkness

on October 11, 1996 by Wade Major
   Boasting some of the most prestigious credentials of any film this year, "The Ghost and the Darkness" is a rousingly effective "man versus beast" yarn in the great tradition of "Jaws" and "Moby Dick," filmed with the kind of flourish and raw, masculine bravado that would do the likes of John Huston proud.
   William Goldman's fact-based script unspools in 1896 East Africa, where an Irish bridge builder named John Patterson (Val Kilmer) has been entrusted with keeping construction of the British trans-African railroad just a few steps ahead of the Germans and the French. Only one, or, rather, two obstacles stand in his way: a pair of savage, seemingly invincible lions whose almost supernatural cunning and horrific daylight attacks bring construction to a standstill and incite the superstitions of the African and Indian workers who humbly dub the beasts "The Ghost" and "The Darkness." Aided only by a legendary American game hunter named Remington (Michael Douglas) and the project's African overseer, Samuel (John Kani), Patterson soon finds himself enmeshed in a terrifying battle of wits with two uncannily intelligent and bloodthirsty animals.
   Despite the story's compelling factual basis, both Goldman and director Stephen Hopkins ("Predator 2," "Blown Away") take their cues primarily from "Jaws," with the Kilmer/Kani/Douglas trio almost perfectly mirroring the Scheider/Dreyfuss/Shaw team, even down to specific scenes and character traits. Admittedly, Goldman's choice to push the story toward the commercial at the expense of the cerebral won't sit well with historical purists, but from a general audience standpoint the decision is a wise one. As an action/adventure epic, the film's shortcomings are remarkably few, with even those largely forgivable in view of the overall achievement. The combination of Goldman's script and the African setting, in fact, seems to have energized most of the film's veteran behind-the-camera talent--from cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and composer Jerry Goldsmith to director Hopkins--into doing their best work in years. Oscar consideration in technical categories, particularly sound and sound effects editing, seems certain. Producer Gale Anne Hurd, meanwhile, adds yet another impressive testosterone epic to her increasingly muscular resume. Starring Michael Douglas, Val Kilmer and John Kani. Directed by Stephen Hopkins. Written by William Goldman. Produced by Gale Anne Hurd, Paul Radin and A. Kitman Ho. A Paramount release. Action/adventure. Rated R. Running time: 117 min
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