A trip to the cinema as a child in the late ‘80s/early 90’s was, fortunately, a frequent event for me; I remember stocking up on sweets from the corner shop and hiding them in my jacket to evade the ridiculous cinema prices, queuing at the ticket booth which always took forever and that excited walk to the screen where whatever cinematic marvel was waiting to thrill and engage me. When you’re young, everything is brilliant; every film I saw was the best thing ever and I had an insatiable thirst for more. Then, in the summer of 1995, along came Congo which made me realise that films could be disappointing.
It had to happen sometime but how could a jungle romp about evil gorillas be the film to kick-start a young boy’s critical bent? The ingredients for success are there; experienced big-game hunters, greedy baddies and…errr…a talking ape. We can start here I guess, yes Congo has a talking monkey, not talking with its vocal chords mind but by being equipped with a tech glove that synthesises a voice for her. Thus we are then treated to such fantastic dialogue as “Amy good gorilla” and “bad gorillas, go away”. The film focusses muchly on the relationship between her and her owner/tutor/guardian & all round good egg, Dr. Elliott (Dylan Walsh) and sags heavily because of this.
The second of the two major storylines revolves around Laura Linney, a good-at-heart scientist working for an incredibly shady organisation, being sent to the Congo to find Bruce Campbell and recover a precious gem that powers a laser gun. I know this all sounds like lots of fun and I also know I had you at ‘Bruce Campbell’ (I had me at ‘Bruce Campbell’) but, cult heroes aside, this is more tedious than dull. Why a conscientious type like Linney would be working for a company whose boss holds profit dearer than his own son doesn’t really make sense, especially considering they are at loggerheads about the direction of their work at least twice in the opening 10 minutes alone. Surely he would’ve fired her or at least not let her get into any position of rank.
Anyway, thinking about those minor details is as boring as the film so let’s have a look at the cast. Congo was put into production hot on the heels of Jurassic Park (1993) to cash in on Michael Crichton’s name whose book this was also based and, like JP, Congo has an interesting ensemble but, unlike JP, it’s entirely wasted. I’ve already mentioned Walsh and Linney in their leading roles so the remaining principal cast is headed by the premier silver screen smoker Ernie Hudson, sporting a sloppy English accent which disappears whenever he physically moves, Tim Curry being Tim Curry, Grant Heslov who is nothing more than an annoyance, John Hawkes in his breakthrough role as ‘Bob’, the guy who screams then dies, Joe Pantoliano as their airport pick-up and Delroy Lindo who seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself as a corrupt African official. Well, enjoying himself enough to ask not to be credited and who can blame him?
There is a bit of peril here and there along their journey; African guerrillas shoot at their plane, they get attacked by a hippo while crossing a river (it looks as bad as it sounds), Tim Curry does his customary eastern European accent then they arrive at their destination, the lost city of Zinj. It turns out King Solomon hid all his diamonds in Zinj (which is in a volcano) and bred evil gorillas to protect his bounty from looters and Tim Curry, this they at least succeed in as their final hurrah is bashing his head in. I had long stopped caring by this point but, for completion purposes, Linney and Ernie Hudson find a dead body prop which is dressed in Bruce Campbell’s clothes from earlier and luckily it has the precious stone gripped in its hand and, even luckier, the laser gun is right there too.
While Linney is faffing about trying to work the laser gun, Ernie Hudson is running low on ammo and Walsh falls into the gorilla pit, cue Amy to come to his rescue by talking with her special glove and basically weirding out the other gorillas. Oddly enough the volcano then erupts and the monkeys fall into a sea of lava while the humans leg it and outrun the eruption which suspiciously hasn’t covered any distance outside Zinj even though it erupted, ash cloud and all. Linney then shoots the laser gun at her company’s satellite knowing full well her boss’s values so would presumably have to go into hiding for the rest of her life.
A large quarrel that fans of Jurassic Park had was that the gorillas were people in rubbish suits, they look cute and fluffy apart from their twisted faces and they’re quite small. As for Amy, urgh, just urgh. Apparently CGI at this point was fine for scales and lizards but hair would’ve looked cartoonish so instead of cartoon monkeys we get ugly care bears. The action scenes are atrocious too, it’s all awkward slow-mo and close-ups, during this there’s a shot that looks as if a gorilla is rubbing Ernie Hudson’s face.
Director Frank Marshall was better serving up B-movie fare like Arachnophobia (1990) and Alive (1993) as the action-adventure genre proved to be too big an ask and promptly buried his directing career. In the right hands Congo could’ve been a resurrection of the jungle adventure film but, like its other heavily flora backdropped contemporary, The Phantom (1996), it veered off the beaten track and plummeted to its death from the rickety rope bridge of critical failure.
– Greg Foster