Judge Mike Pinsky says this is the best movie in which Norm from Cheers beats a guy senseless with a golf club that you have ever seen.
"Sometimes, you got to be a little bit ruthless."—Ray Mathews (Daniel Baldwin)
Consider the strange case of Stuart Gordon. Trained in experimental theater, Gordon has always had a talent for blending horror and humor with a studied visual style. He is an enormously skilled director and has the ability to bend popular genres in unusual ways. Yet, where Peter Jackson broke through to mainstream success, and David Cronenberg gained significance in film theory circles, Gordon has languished in B-movie land. It is not as if he has not had chances. His breakthrough films, Re-Animator and From Beyond, earned him a place in every cult cinema book. He wrote the original story for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, but watched director Joe Johnston reap the rewards. He has crafted quirky and underrated horror comedies like The Pit and the Pendulum and Dagon.
In between, he has created his share of duds: the turgid prison picture Fortress, the misguided mecha epic Robot Jox. It seems that for every intelligent film that he makes, Gordon has to balance his karma with an artistic failure. Admittedly, Wes Craven has the same problem.
Gordon's last picture, Dagon, was a winner, managing to be scary and funny and atmospheric under its cramped budgetary circumstances. So I noted when I reviewed it last year for another site. But Dagon worked so well because Gordon was free from the constraints of realism: he could dive completely into Lovecraft's gothic excess.
King of the Ants is adapted by Charles Higson from his splattery revenge novel. Crime stories of this sort usually have a standard formula. 1) Ordinary Guy gets involved in criminal activity. 2) Bad guys double-cross Ordinary Guy , hurt him, and leave him for dead. 3) Ordinary Guy becomes killing machine, ruthlessly exterminating villains. Technically, we are supposed to root for the hero, even if he has done morally questionable things prior to his justifiable slaughter-fest. King of the Ants fits this mold fairly well. Sean Crawley (fairly bland Chris McKenna) is a young man with no direction. He will pretty much do anything for a buck without thinking twice, and he lacks much in the way of dreams or convictions. Cynical Duke (George Wendt, wonderfully cast against type) brings Sean into the circle of seedy real-estate developer Ray Mathews (Daniel Baldwin). They have a job for Sean: shadow a city accountant (an underused Ron Livingston) who is gathering evidence against Mathews.
Sean is not very good at surveillance, but that does not matter. One night, drunk and angry, Mathews offers him some money to kill the accountant. Sean readily accepts. But after the deed is done, Duke and Mathews are angry with Sean—more because Sean has hidden the file of evidence against Mathews in order to protect himself. So the thugs take him out to the desert to beat him into forgetting where he hid the file…
What follows is pretty straightforward in one sense. You know Sean is going to get his brutal revenge on the bad guys by the last act. What makes King of the Ants more than perfunctory is Stuart Gordon's direction. Abandoning the surrealism (apart from some jarring hallucinations) that served him so well in Dagon, Gordon opts for handheld cameras and a raw, more realistic feel. The violence, particularly the murder of the accountant and the overlong torture sequence, is often excruciating. There is a sordid and disturbing quality to the brutality, far beyond the boundaries of a more mainstream Hollywood horror film. How Gordon got away with an R rating for this (especially since independent films get hammered on content worse than studio pictures) is a mystery.
Up through the torture of Sean, King of the Ants has promise. Gordon balances weirdly comic moments with a touch of sympathy for both Sean and the accountant. For instance, Sean's inept murder of the accountant can be funny or tragic or horrifying, depending on the angle from which you see it. The torture sequence is foul and cruel, but it has to be: this is the real consequence of violence, and Gordon would be mistaken to turn it into something lighter than it is.
Unfortunately, the torture sequence also starts to unravel the film. The second half of the script is a complete mess. Sean's best friend (Timm Sharp) drops in and out of the picture just to service the plot. Sean has a completely inexplicable affair with the wife (Kari Wuhrer) of his murder victim. Does she regularly bring homeless paranoids into her bedroom? And then, as if he checked his watch and realized there were only 15 minutes left in the picture, Sean sets a trap and polishes off Mathews and his crew. The dialogue becomes inane, plot holes wear at the audience's nerves, and character motivations disappear. I kept hoping it was all just another hallucination of the tortured Sean. But then the credits rolled.
In his commentary track, Stuart Gordon (joined by McKenna and Wendt) calls the film "sort of an excursion into reality." In what The Onion AV Club might dub the "inevitable dash of pretension," he justifies the film's brutality by tossing in theories about catharsis—and he tries to compare the film's alleged rule-breaking to Hitchcock's Psycho. But he and the two stars also have a good time trying to justify the script's plot holes as comic moments.
Stuart Gordon is a smarter director than the material he is working with, and King of the Ants works as well as it does mostly because of him. The real surprise in all of this is George Wendt. Those who only know him from Cheers (and might be unaware of his comic training at Second City) will discover a side of Wendt they never knew. He apparently was the one who actually discovered Higson's novel and brought it to Gordon (taking a co-producer credit on the film), taking an artistic risk in the role of Duke.
And in spite of the film's missteps, isn't it probably worth checking out King of the Ants just to see George Wendt in a really offbeat role?
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Stuart Gordon and Actors George Wendt and Chris McKenna
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