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by: James Berardinelli

The Skulls, a thriller from director Rob Cohen (whose last theatrical effort behind the camera was 1996's Sylvester Stallone failure, Daylight), has the same problem as many other teen (or, in this case, barely post-teen) movies in the same genre: a script that, during its best moments, can charitably be called uninspired. The film opens with an intriguing premise, and some of the early sequences, while not masterpieces of composition or creativity, are engaging. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for things to begin the slippery slide into mediocrity before plunging off a precipice into idiocy. The contrivances pile up more quickly than snowfall in a Buffalo winter, and the ending is so lame that it provoked guffaws from theater-goers attending the screening along with me.

The movie plays like a younger version of the filmed adaptation of John Grisham's The Firm, complete with pointless action sequences, a lack of genuine suspense, and a lazy sense of storytelling. Here, instead of Tom Cruise, we have Joshua Jackson as the hero who is seduced from the path of right & light by promises of wealth and prosperity, then wants out when he learns the dark side of the deal. But, once you're in, the only escape is via a coffin.

Luke McNamara (Jackson) grew up on the streets and has worked hard to become one of the most admired students at Yale. He is eyeing law school, but, for someone with only about $20 in his bank account, the $45,000 per year price tag is daunting. Then, one night, everything changes for Luke. He is chosen by the campus' premiere secret society, The Skulls, to be a member. Once he passes the initiation test, he finds himself on the fast track to wealth and popularity. But his girlfriend, Chloe (Leslie Bibb), is wary of the new Luke, and his best buddy, Will (Hill Harper), chides him for being a dishonest hypocrite. Meanwhile, Luke has a new pal, Caleb Mandrake (Paul Walker), and has been introduced to the movers and shakers within The Skulls' hierarchy, including Caleb's father, Judge Litten Mandrake (Craig T. Nelson), Senator Ames Levritt (William Petersen), and the university provost, Lombard (Christopher McDonald). Then Will dies under mysterious circumstances, and Luke becomes convinced that The Skulls are involved. Thus begins his quest to be free of them.

Movies like this have little to recommend them because so little care is taken to develop characters, build relationships, or generate legitimate tension. It's easy enough to suspend disbelief when a film transpires in a reality that is clearly removed from our own (a science fiction tale, for example). However, when the picture takes place within the constraints of modern society, contrivances become increasingly difficult to accept - especially when they come as frequently as in The Skulls. For example, didn't anyone involved in the production of this movie think it would be a little unlikely for a male provost to chase a clearly frightened female student across campus? And, if he's a member of The Skulls, why not get a henchman to do it? That's what they're for in movies like this. The real bad guys are supposed to stay in the background and watch while someone else does their dirty work for them. Just check out a James Bond movie if you don't believe me.

There's also an issue about how powerful The Skulls actually are. On some occasions, they seem omnipotent and omniscient, capable of manipulating any situation that arises. But there are other instances when they're more like a bunch of juvenile delinquents pretending that every day is Halloween. And there's never a time when the film makes an attempt to describe what it means to be a Skull (beyond getting bank account boosts and cool cars, and pledging undying loyalty to each other). How does being a Skull impart power and prestige? Why is everyone wary of them? Other than covering up the occasional murder, what are a me


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