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REVIEW: Unfortunately, the movie starts with narration. A heavily accented English voice explains that even the most impossible parts of this story really happened, so right away, I’m thinking, “Nope.” And I’m right. But fine. That’s nothing new. Then there’s Val Kilmer in glasses and a late 19th century British uniform walking in a massive, highly ornate interior. It doesn’t do much to stir interest.
He’s Colonel John Henry Patterson, a military engineer, hired by Sir Robert Beaumont to head to Kenya and build a train bridge across the river Tsavo in Kenya. The problem is, the project is already behind schedule and Beaumont is competing against the French and Germans to complete the cross-country railway. Beaumont is not a personable man in his endeavor. He is known as a monster and tells Patterson he is not interested in his life, only his reputation. Get the job done.
So Patterson bids adieu to his pregnant wife, whom is expecting in six months, hopefully just in time for her husband to be at her side when she delivers. He tells her that there may be difficulties on the job, to which she states that there always are. Of course we know that “difficulties” translates to lions, but they don’t know that, yet. She sends him off with just right touch of Hollywood-wife-foreboding. Once there, Patterson is met by project supervisor Angus Starling who tells him they have the best seats on the train that will take them to the bridge site. Those seats turn out to be up front, literally, right on the engine facing forward. It look fun but more so, incredibly dangerous. After a few days travel, he arrives at the camp where thousands of African and Indian workers are laying track across the dusty savanna. Patterson heads straight to the river to where he will construct the bridge and is a little shocked at the conditions, but is more aroused by the challenge. Seriously, he seems downright turned on. From there, he meets Angus at the hospital, which is really just a big tent.
Patterson learns that there are lions nearby. One attacked a man who was riding on a donkey. This inspires Patterson to set a trap. That night, he ties a donkey to a post for bait, climbs a tree, and actually shoots and kills a hungry lion with one shot. This single kill inspires the men and relieves their fear of the night. The bridge work begins and seven weeks later, the final support beam is in place, ready for the framing. It is cause for celebration, and Patterson feels pride in his accomplishment. What he doesn’t know is that in the tall grass just beyond the site, lions have been watching. And they’ve chosen their first revenge victim: Mahina, one of Patterson’s African advisers. Right out from his tent, they drag him feet first into the night and lick him to death, literally, so as to drink the blood. Doctor Angus thinks this is peculiar. This isn’t normal lions behavior. Before the dust can settle on the first attack, that same night, a second man is chewed up, worse than the first. Naturally, the workers get fidgety, so Patterson orders the construction of a fence around the camp, which seems like something that should have been Day One, Step One, but what do I know about lion defense?
We learn there are in fact, two lions and they are a rather motivated duo of cats that use hunting tactics like the raptors in Jurassic Park. Once, while one is eating a freshly killed worker, distracting Patterson and two others with guns, whom seem to have forgotten that guns have triggers and can shoot bullets, the second lion is on the roof of a building. The beast leaps into the fray killing the self-professed Christian on a mission to convert all of Africa and then disappears into the thicket.
Directed by Stephen Hopkins, the film is a strange mix. Loosely based on the celebrated true event, the film takes a lot of liberties with the facts to heighten the drama, especially with the lions themselves, who were actually maneless lions in real life. But that is forgivable. It’s a movie and never tires to be a documentary. What it does do though, is try to be magical, and that is it’s major flaw. The film implies that the lions indeed are not of this world (actually, they look like animatronic puppets or worse, someone’s living room rug). They are “devils” as the locals call them, and this creates a strange aura around the story. Musical cues and images of waving tall grass indicate that there is a force at work, and this adds nothing to the story as the massive animals are themselves, scary enough. What’s more, they suggest that the creatures are planners, almost highly developed, using collaborative hunting techniques unknown to the species. But that is the buy-in for this movie. If you accept this and watch it as a fantasy, it has limited potential. The actors are certainly believing so. It’s not so much a case of over action, but there are some broad strokes on display, which might be an homage to the acting style of the period, with exaggerated motions and curious dialogue that would fit nicely on a silent film title card, but probably isn’t.
While the movie is a dreadful mess with long boring scenes of uninteresting characters doing uninteresting things, while fake lions attack half-hearted actors pretending to be scared, there are tiny glimmers of what the film might have been. Take away horribly miscast actors Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas, plus two silly stuffed cats and they’d have the makings for a better film, especially with the talented and far more intriguing African actors that deserved much more screen time (Samuel and Mahina.) Unappealing and entirely forgettable, the movie tries too hard to do for lions what Jaws did for sharks. But it’s all roar and no bite. Wait, no. It totally bites.
Scene Setup: The lions are seemingly indestructible. Gunfire at almost point blank range either misses or has no effect. Remington figures the site’s hospital is what’s drawing the lions close, what with all those bleeding survivors sticking up the joint. So he directs the workers to build a new hospital and keep it clean! He and Patterson use the old clinic as bait, dousing it with animal blood and cow heads. They then arm themselves and go inside, waiting for the big cats to arrive, lured by the irresistible stank of carcases. And them.
The Scene: (Time stamp 1:06:00) Patterson and Remington are inside the old hospital patrolling the windows in anticipation of the two cats. They chit-chat about each other’s back stories, swapping compliments and so forth, but its obvious the talk is meant to ease the stress. When the lions inevitably arrive, they do so with a remarkable sense of stealth, moving about the enclosed hospital without being seen, though they make sure to growl a bit and knock on a few panels to scare the main characters. This keep the men on their toes as the scan the darkness outside, nervously pointing their weapons and sometimes firing aimless shots into the walls, and ceiling. The creatures seems to be everywhere at once, and the hunters are clearly not prepared for the speed and agility of the animals. Feeling out of his depth and not wanting to lose control over the situation, Remington tells Patterson to take off the lock on the front door and allow whatever is outside causing all the ruckus to come indoors and face his double-barreled shottie. When the door swings open, there is nothing there. That’s because it was all a ruse. The lions have learned the the real hospital is on the other side of the camp and they have merely distracted the hunters while they go in for the big kill. Nasty stuff. Or rather the big one bites the doctor. Needless to say, come morning, it’s bye-bye time. The entire work force jumps on the first train out of the camp.
The scene in the bait hospital is without a doubt, the most tense in the film, with the unseen lions being their most intimidating. The men with guns seems like babes with toys, utterly no match for the ferocious predators, apparently imbued with mystical powers. The moment is claustrophobic with the thins walls of the structure keeping the men in a tight space, the quick-moving lions constantly forcing the hunters to question their position and tactics, even getting them to fire erratically in fear. The livestock they have tied up inside with them adds much to the tension as they skitter in panic as the lions scratch and claw at the walls and ceiling.
What’s most important about this moment is the lions. It is in this scene where we can no longer doubt that they are something more than animals. They are cunning, resourceful, seemingly invulnerable, and especially vengeful. They make a conscious decision to avoid the easy meals inside the old hospital, and instead, after tricking the hunters into thinking the beasts are nearby, head to the new hut where the injured and many others are in hiding. The people are relaxed and confident in the hunter’s ability to kill the monsters. It’s a horrible miscalculation. Looking simply to kill, the lions massacre dozens, never feeding, only slaughtering. By the time Patterson and Remington get there, it’s far too late. The place is a charnel house.
It’s what we can’t see, the imagined rather than the known that has always caused the most fear or anticipation. It’s the entire reason why Jaws is such a successful horror film. The hint of a devil is infinitely more terrifying than the sight of one. As the lions test the fences, so to speak, the sickening sounds of their deadly claws on the tin walls and roof are the stuff of nightmares, easily identifiable as a demon from the dark. And just how many creatures are out there? This question seems to be exactly what the lions are forcing the hunters to ask, which reveals even more about the animal’s superior thinking, or supernatural gifts. Or screenwriter’s acid trip.
Michael Douglas, Val Kilmer, Tom Wilkinson