A Yale student from a working class background is inducted into a prestigious secret society.
Directed by Rob Cohen
Starring Joshua Jackson, Paul Walker, and Leslie Bibb
Review by Jon Kissel
That’s not to say Cohen and writer John Pogue couldn’t have found a better way into this material. Strip away the murder and the heightened stakes and Luke McNamara’s (Joshua Jackson) gang of white ninjas, and it’s easy to imagine a grounded story about power and station and the nature of America. Anytime a French film can find a way to stage a scene in a classroom, there’s going to be some literary allusion to the film’s themes. The Skulls does the same thing in the most naked way imaginable, but it’s at least cognizant of this American psychological struggle between the meritocracy Americans want to believe in and the aristocracy it so often is. From there, the film establishes an angel-devil dynamic between Luke’s best friends Will (Hill Harper) and Chloe (Leslie Bibb), and his Skull assigned soulmate Caleb (Paul Walker), and replicates the soulmate relationship between Caleb’s silver spoon father (Craig T. Nelson) and Senator Levritt (William Peterson), who, like Luke, also grew up poor. There’s a lot of thematic threads to consider, plus the evergreen dilemma of Luke’s hefty student loans and the background casting of the all-white Skulls membership.
Instead of engaging with any of that, The Skulls contains a couple car chases, some shootouts, a staged suicide, psychiatric malpractice, and some low-level espionage. Escalating the stakes by entangling Luke in a murder conspiracy makes the film seem eventful, but my attention dropped significantly when it became clear what kind of movie this was going to be. Cohen’s idea of directing is making Luke seem crazy with a lot of quick cuts and Dutch angles, and his idea of atmosphere is a Creed needle drop when a swarm of beautiful women descend on a Skulls gathering. Scenes stop making any sense out of a desire to juice them up with false action, particularly when Caleb breaks into Luke’s room and savagely pummels him because he wanted to tearfully apologize for everything. I know when I’m feeling contrite, I like to start my apologies by giving the aggrieved party a concussion.
Tasked with performing the confused tonal mess that is The Skulls are a reasonably strong group of network TV all-stars and Paul Walker on the cusp of stardom. Jackson’s fine in the lead, and Bibb does more with her underwritten part than the film asks of her. Nelson has the appropriate booming voice for a patrician lord, and Christopher McDonald in a villainous role is always welcome, even if the role of bloodthirsty provost makes me laugh. As for Walker, I continue to not understand the appeal. He is nothing more than a pretty face. Caleb is the meatiest role in the film, as he needs to radiate the confidence of the pampered rich while also being earnestly sorrowful about what happens to Will but too weak to do anything about it. The character should take the viewer from revulsion to sympathy and catharsis, but Walker just can’t do any of it.
I’m surprised to say that The Skulls is a missed opportunity, as the seeds of something good exist but the film’s creative minds don’t trust their audience. Cohen’s on the upswing of his career here, as he’s got Fast and the Furious up next with xXx on deck, but it becomes apparent soon after that this guy doesn’t have much going on. His career is both an argument for and against America being a meritocracy, as he experienced significant success before his later work exposed him as a hack. Sadly, that’s not the argument The Skulls is having within itself. C-