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Strong performances cannot save The Skulls

JoshuaThe Skulls (Universal) attempts to add another layer to the teenage-thriller genre made famous by movies such as Urban Legends and I Know What You Did Last Summer. It seeks to add aspects of thrillers made for adult audiences, such as The Firm. Unfortunately, this skull bit off more than it could chew.

Director Rob Cohen should have had no problem completing his vision of an intellectual thriller. A brilliant director with many film credits, Cohen got strong performances out of the hottest young actors in Hollywood today. But his vision gets tripped up in the screenplay itself.

Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson, Dawson’s Creek) faces all of the problems associated with college – financial stress, fitting in with people from different backgrounds, studying and a girlfriend. But Luke has a way out, he thinks.

Luke has been offered admission into one of Yale’s secret societies, The Skulls. In his senior year, a bright student and captain/hero of Yale’s championship crew team, he would be the perfect choice. The only difference between Luke and the other Skull inductees is his background. He’s a townie from New Haven with no family or wealth.

Luke accepts the invitation in hopes of having his $45,000-law-school tab taken care of. From there, the organization that is The Skulls is unfolded to him. The organization has its traditions rooted in 200 years of existence, and has senators, industry heads and even presidents as its alumni. It is made clear to Luke that if he follows the extensive set of rules, his future will be taken care of by the society.

The Skulls is not the blessing that Luke thinks it to be in the beginning, and his friends are the first to notice it. Even before Luke’s initiation, his girlfriend Chloe (Leslie Bibb, Popular) and his best friend Will (Hill Harper, He Got Game) see The Skulls as something inherently bad. If it’s secret and it’s elite, it can’t be good, Will warns.

The plot takes a twist when Will, the managing editor at the Yale student newspaper, is murdered for trying to do an expos? on The Skulls. The ensuing cover-up causes Luke to question and eventually take on The Skulls, with the help of Chloe and three kleptomaniac friends from high school. Many car and foot chases ensue, and the movie ends.

Jackson gives an incredible performance. In a movie where the characters are as flat as the screen they are projected on, Jackson’s acting ability, along with the coaching of Cohen, creates a character as real as the person sitting next to you in class. You know his fears and are interested in seeing how far he will allow himself to be corrupted in order to quell those fears.

Bibb, on the other hand, found the transition from television acting to movie acting much more difficult. Her line delivery is so over-emotional that even the most serious scenes in the movie can seem ridiculous.

Like Bibb, Craig T. Nelson (Coach) does not fully develop his character, Litten Mandrake, the head of The Skulls. Despite being father to Caleb, Luke’s only real friend in The Skulls, the only side of Mandrake that is portrayed is the evil kingpin who will stop at nothing to make sure that The Skulls stays intact. You do not even get a sense that he is Caleb’s father outside Mandrake’s putting pressure on him to succeed.

Paul Edwards (Varsity Blues) appears in his fifth supporting role as Caleb Mandrake. Perennially the teenage cool guy in movies, Edwards’ role in The Skulls does not deviate much from his previous films. He is the rich kid who was a skull from the day he was born, according to his classmates. There is one upside to Caleb – you never know whether he is siding with Luke or his father.

The Skulls is rooted in truths that all college students face, but the movie does not convey a sense of a realistic college experience. The Skulls is too much to be taken seriously, and the experiences of the characters are so extreme that it is nearly impossible to relate to them. And sadly, a well-directed and well-acted movie falls flat on its face.

Skulls opens Friday.

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