Rated R - Running time: 2:03 - Released 6/4/99

Anthony Hopkins seems able to make every film he's in enjoyable, on some level. Many of them have just been excellent films altogether. Some, like The Mask Of Zorro and The Edge, would have been terribly lame without him. Jon Turteltaub's Instinct, while not completely dependent on Hopkins for its success (Cuba Gooding Jr. does a good job, too) is aided immeasurably by his presence.

Hopkins plays Dr. Ethan Powell, a noted anthropologist who disappears into the African jungle, lives for 2 years among the indigenous ape population, and finally turns up in a Rwandan prison for murder. Now an unpredictable, violent prisoner not unlike Hannibal Lecter from The Silence Of The Lambs (but not nearly as clean-cut), Powell must have experienced some event that made him snap, and now he refuses to speak, even to his own family. The case intrigues Dr. Theo Caulder (Gooding), an ambitous Miami psychologist who sees Dr. Powell as a career challenge: If he can get the "ape man" to talk, he will be rich, famous, accepted, accredited, etc. This idea is supported by Theo's advisor, Dr. Ben Hillard (Donald Sutherland), who not only suggests it to him, but practically shoves him out the door.

When Theo first talks to Powell, in the disgusting, degrading atmosphere of the ill-named Harmony Bay prison, it's the old "don't touch him, don't look him in the eye, don't reach across the table" routine. No one expects Powell to break his vow of silence, especially Warden Keefer (John Aylward, ER) or the cruel Guard Decks (John Ashton, Beverly Hills Cop). But soon the breakthrough is made, he tells Theo of his experiences in Africa with the apes, and, finally, the deep, dark secret that caused him to open up a can of whoop-ass on some people who were searching for him.

This film has its moments, but there aren't that many. Hopkins is the most fun to watch, but his role is trite and not well delineated in Gerald Di Pego's screenplay (based on the novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn). Gooding puts forth a solid performance, but occasionally tries a little too hard; his earnestness seems forced at times. Very good supporting performances by Sutherland and Maura Tierney (as Powell's estranged daughter) help the film, but they can't correct its main weakness, which is its script. Di Pego's dialogue drags; the pace is terribly slow. The background stories about the other inmates at the prison, while showing some good performances, feel like filler. And numerous characters, especially the cruel prison guard, the cold, detached warden, and the put-upon prison doctor (George Dzundza), are too stereotyped to be believable.

When Gooding and Hopkins are together it's more enjoyable, and the flashback scenes in Africa involving the apes (created by Stan Winston) are by far the most interesting. The progress made between "doctor" and "patient" is too abrupt, though; Powell is said to have sworn off human speech, but within a few visits with Theo, he's yapping away.

While Instinct features great actors putting in good performances, it suffers in the script department. Hopkins is almost always a good bet, but this will be one of his less-memorable outings. ***½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

See Current Reviews

See FilmQuips Archive