Judge Maurice Cobbs actually knows where King Solomon's Mines are. You go just past Atlantis, hang a left at the Garden of Eden, keep going past Shangri-La, and make the first right turn past Never-Never Land.
The greatest treasure known to man. The greatest adventure of all time.
Whether or not it was intentional (and I sort of suspect that it was not), the people behind this retelling of King Solomon's Mines have created an almost perfect throwback to the classic adventure serials of the '30s and '40s. They have captured everything that was great—and not so great—about them, such as fantastic adventure, a rugged man's-man hero, a beautiful and plucky (and somewhat dense) heroine, and colorful and exotic supporting characters. There's magic, mystery, a really cool major villain and some two-dimensional supporting ones, beautiful locales, silly dialogue, and ham-fisted, seat-of-your-pants scriptwriting. There's thrilling gun battles, frenzied native warriors, hidden treasure, mystical relics, booby traps, and a fight to the death. And there's a landmark called "The Breasts of Sheba." Really. I could go on and on. And I will.
Facts of the Case
British "Great White Hunter" Allan Quatermain (Patrick Swayze, Dirty Dancing), still reeling from the death of his wife from a lion attack, decides to leave his beloved Africa and return to England. But when Elizabeth Maitland (Allison Doody, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), daughter of an archeologist friend being held for ransom by a ruthless tribal chieftain named Twala (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), seeks Quatermain's help, the adventurer returns to the Dark Continent to save his friend and unravel the mystery of the fabled King Solomon's Mines, a long-lost trove of fabulous riches—with the power to rule all of Africa.
Patrick Swayze would not have been my first choice to play Allan Quatermain. Nor would he have been my second, or third, or tenth, or twentieth. However, I think he's turned in a really good performance here. His Quatermain is much too American, mind you: Swayze claims he could have done a British accent, and I wish he had. Just as I wouldn't want to see an American James Bond or a Chinese Zorro, an American Allan Quatermain is off-putting. But Swayze plays the part with exactly the sort of gruff swagger that is called for, and as a plus, he performs his own stunts and even provides his own wardrobe. Swank. And while I don't think he's exactly right for the part, he is markedly better than Sean Connery as Quatermain in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. At least he never delivers a line as insipid as "Sweating is what we do."
Allison Doody, having previously found herself in the company of globetrotting adventurers James Bond and Indiana Jones, is adequate for the role of Maitland's plucky and spirited daughter (aren't they always plucky and spirited?). There's standard love-interest stuff here, even though there is no such thing in the novel; when she first meets him, she thinks he's a jerk, but after she gets to know him, et cetera, et cetera…whatever. You know this story; they might just as well have kept it in the mothballs, for all it actually adds to the movie. In fact, Doody's whole performance is adequate but unremarkable, and in the end, I knew that I would not care if she should be mauled by an angry lioness as well. Future adventure heroines should take note: When captured by the bad guys, you probably should not tell them every single little thing that pops into your head. Call it a helpful suggestion.
Elizabeth's father, Dr. Samuel Maitland (John Standing, Mrs. Dalloway), sent her a map that could possibly reveal the location of the legendary King Solomon's Mines shortly before his capture at the hands of African tribesmen. She finds the despondent Quatermain drowning his sorrows and convinces him to travel with her to Africa in order to save her father's life by delivering the map to Twala. Along for the ride is Elizabeth's guardian, Captain Good (Roy Marsden, The Last Vampyre), fellow explorer Sir Henry (Ian Roberts, Tarzan and the Lost City), and Quatermain's loyal friends Ventvogel (Mesia Gumede) and Khiva (Godfrey Lekala). Together, the band of heroes must race against time and battle the dangers of wild Africa, deciphering the map in order to find Dr. Maitland before the brutal Twala executes him. Along the way, they are joined by a mysterious stranger called Umbopa (Sidede Onyulo), who has his own secret agenda.
As if that's not enough to deal with, the adventurers are being chased by a group of Russians who believe that the map is the property of the Tsar and are willing to go to any lengths to retrieve it. They've hired Quatermain's ex-partner, McNabb (Gavin Hood, A Reasonable Man), as a guide. McNabb is torn; he doesn't exactly like Quatermain (each feels that he was betrayed by the other), but he's not willing to kill him in cold blood, either. The Russians are more annoying than threatening, turning up at inopportune moments to thwart our heroes; and although their leader, Ivan (Nick Borraine), is supposed to be a menacing presence, he comes off more like a frat boy with unfortunate facial hair. He is also mind-numbingly dense: Why hire a tracker to guide you and then ignore his advice time and time again? As these characters made their violent exit from the story, I breathed a sigh of relief—not because the heroes had overcome another obstacle, but because the Russians would no longer be sucking screen time from those who could make better use of it. This was a subplot that should never have been added, because McNabb could have served basically the same purpose, and you don't need an absurd back story to place him on the scene. McNabb is supposed to be Quatermain's opposite number, the player on the other side, but he's such a bloody pushover. And just for the record: When my enemy taunts me by saying, "What are you going to do? Shoot me with my own gun?" I will reply, "You betcha!" just before pulling the trigger.
Twala, on the other hand, is a wonderful villain. Hakeem Kae-Kazim exudes a menace that none of the other bad guys seem to achieve, and his presence is pervasive. Strutting and posing his way through his scenes, Twala is the perfect serial villain—Ming the Merciless with a leopard skin on his head. Leseidi Magoathe turns in one of the most striking performances in the film as Gagool, Twala's mysterious and mystical witch doctor. Extraordinarily beautiful, despite the heavily caked tribal makeup she wears throughout the movie, she is captivating in every scene, commanding the screen with her fluid movements, liquid voice, and large, dark, expressive eyes. Gagool seems to be allied with Twala, but she has her own agenda, dictated by the will of the gods. Plus, she's got some pretty mean mojo that would make Darth Vader swoon with envy.
Filmed on location in Africa, the movie is certainly impressive to look at. Director Steve Botum makes excellent use of the astounding natural beauty that surrounds the action; in fact, I'd say that this movie is worth seeing just for the stunning vistas. It reminds me of the classic adventure movies of years past, where part of the fun for the audience was to visit faraway places vicariously—and because of the rockin' 5.1 surround sound and crystal-clear picture, you'll feel that you're right in the middle of the action.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When someone promises "the greatest adventure of all time," they'd by gum better deliver. King Solomon's Mines does not. The best adventure films keep you on the edge of your seat, barely giving you a chance to catch your breath after one thrilling escape before throwing the heroes into another desperate situation. While King Solomon's Mines is by no means boring, it is rather subdued. Nothing is ever as suspenseful as it should be, and there is an element of silliness that keeps derailing the forward momentum of the action.
Part of what bogs the story down is the unnecessary subplots that keep intruding on the action: The dead-wife subplot is as useless as it is shallow, and the same goes for the subplot regarding the adventurer's fight to get his son back, as well as the apparently meaningless vow never to return to the Dark Continent. If the scriptwriters were so anxious to add on to the story as presented in the novel, it might have been nice of them to actually have the subplots affect the story in some meaningful manner, instead of tacking on more and more with no reason or purpose. As it stands, the subplots drag the story down under excess weight, keeping it mired in unneeded, worn-out clichés, and making this three-hour miniseries seem like a two-hour movie that has been padded to the point of absurdity.
Also, the modernistic PC flourishes injected into the story are incongruous with the sort of character they are trying to create, and as such, Quatermain never really gels as the "classic movie hero" the filmmakers want him to be. However, this is perhaps more a symptom of our society than anything else…after all, we live in a world in which James Bond quit smoking and Han Solo wouldn't shoot first, so perhaps it's not so surprising to find an environmentally enlightened Great White Hunter of the 19th century, and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the adventurers cannot fathom that African natives might be simply avaricious (as it happens, the villain turns out to be megalomaniacal). After all, only white people are greedy and materialistic—everybody knows that. Blue-eyed devils, the lot of 'em.
All problems aside, Hallmark Entertainment has presented a visually stunning and family-friendly adventure for your enjoyment—which, I suppose, is what they were trying to do. Hardcore fans of the novel by H. Rider Haggard (isn't that a badass name?) might be put off by some of the liberties taken by the script, but on the other hand, I've never met a hardcore fan of the novel. Me, I'm a sucker for this sort of high adventure, so I got a kick out of this movie, despite the things that I didn't like. And if the only version of the story you've ever seen is the 1985 stinker starring Richard Chamberlain, you'll absolutely want to give this one a try. And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to mount my own expedition for "The Breasts of Sheba."
If lovin' adventure is wrong, I don't wanna be right. Not guilty.
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