The Skulls

The Skulls (2000)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Joshua Jackson, Hill Harper, Leslie Bibb
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Deleted Scenes, Theatrical Trailer, Production Notes, Talent Files

While I’m sure that there are plenty of original film ideas floating around Hollywood, we rarely see any of them make it to the screen. Let’s face it, Hollywood was into recycling long before the rest of us caught on. A recent trend has been to take a particular genre or film and re-package it for a different audience. (This has been happening for years with foreign films being remade for American tastes.) Another practice is to take "adult"-themed films and change them so that they will appeal to younger audiences. Well, apparently "The Firm" and "The Devil’s Advocate" were too "high-brow" for teenagers, as Universal has brought us "The Skulls", a suspense thriller which will seem very familiar, but does offer some exciting action.

Joshua Jackson of "Dawson’s Creek" and "The Mighty Ducks" fame stars as Luke McNamara. Luke is a rising senior at an unnamed Ivy Leauge school (although, it’s implied that it’s Yale.). Luke is the captain of the champion crew team and as a poor scholarship student, proven himself to be a hard-worker and a go-getter. Because of this, Luke is "tapped" (asked) to join The Skulls, a secret society. Secret societies are like fraternities, but more… secret. Luke accepts this offer, much to the chagrin of his friend Will (Hill Harper) and his would-be girlfriend Chole (the beguiling Leslie Bibb). The Skulls are known to bestow money upon their members and as Luke can’t afford the law school that he wants to attend, he sees the tapping as a blessing.

But, soon things start to turn sour. Luke learns that The Skulls are a renegade group who are drunk on power and seem themselves as being above the law. When Luke discovers that a student has been murdered by a Skull, he tries to alert the authorities. Luke soon finds himself in a paranoid nightmare, as it seems that the influence of The Skulls reaches every corner of society. With the help of Chloe and some colorful characters from Luke’s old neighborhood, Luke decides to take on The Skulls single-handedly and challenge their power.

As noted earlier, the plot of "The Skulls" borrows heavily from "The Firm" and "The Devil’s Advocate". (There are even some shots lifted from "The Firm".) Herein lies the main problem with the film. As we are familiar with these other films, much of "The Skulls" is predictable. Fortunately, the film does redeem itself during the last reel as there are several unexpected twists and turns. Also, the use of the secret society angle helps the film. As many of the rituals shown in the film are based on fact and rumor about real secret societies (screenwriter John Pogue was in one at Yale), the film introduces us to a world that has been relatively unexplored in film. I do wish that we could have learned more about these secret societies, but then I guess they wouldn’t be secret.

Joshua Jackson is very good in the lead role. After cutting his teeth working in the shadow of Emilio Estevez and James Van Der Beek, Jackson comes into his own here, doing a fine job portraying the "everyman" necessary for this role. Leslie Bibb goes above and beyond the aura she portrays on "Popular" and gives a fine performance as Chole. It’s always a pleasure to see William Petersen working and he’s good as the enigmatic Senator Levritt. Craig T. Nelson is also good as the cold Litten Mandrake, but his moustache is the scariest part of the film!

"The Skulls" is coming to DVD as a Universal Collector’s Edition. As is common with Universal titles the film is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer, and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. Being a film that was released theatrically only seven months ago, you would expect the image to look very good, and the DVD doesn’t disappoint. The picture is very crisp and clear, displaying no intrusive noise and only the finest amount of grain during the daytime shots. The film is made-up of a combination of bright daytime shots and dark night shots. The fact that all of these differing shots come across looking great is a testament to the work that went into this transfer. The daytime shots are clear and very sharp, showing only the fine grain mentioned earlier. The nighttime shots (and those in The Skulls lair) look just as nice, boasting true blacks that have superior definition. The image shows no obvious complications from compression or artifacting.

The audio on "The Skulls" DVD is a <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 channel> mix. The audio lends a great deal to the overall effect of the film as the surround sound effects and the score by Randy Edelman help to heighten the tension in the film. The surround sound mix displays an acceptable soundfield, with some nice examples of specific speaker placement, but overall the mix is average. Throughout the film, the sound is very clear and the dialogue is always audible.

Being a Collector’s Edition, "The Skulls" DVD boasts several extra features. First up is an <$commentary,audio commentary> featuring director Rob Cohen. This commentary is scene-specific and Cohen does a good job of speaking consistently throughout the film. He gives a great deal of detail about the making of the film and speaks highly of his actors. My problem with the commentary (and this is my honest opinion), is that Cohen comes off as smug. Cohen discloses that he attended Harvard and this Ivy League air of superiority permeates the commentary. The bottom line is that I was interested in what Cohen was saying, but I was turned off by his attitude. (I went to one of the best schools in the country, but you don’t hear me bragging about it.)

The "Spotlight on Location" has become a staple of the Universal Collector’s Editions and the featurette on "The Skulls" follows suit. This 15-minute segment offers interviews with Rob Cohen, Joshua Jackson, and other members of the cast and crew. It also gives us a lot of behind-the-scenes footage. As is typical with these featurettes, there are too many shots from the film used as filler.

Ten deleted scenes are also featured on the DVD. These scenes run about 13 minutes and are comprised of brief lines that were cut to entire scenes. While most of these cuts are easily dismissed, there are two (the arrest sequence and the confrontation between Luke and Little Mandrake) which would have actually added to the film. These deleted scenes can be viewed with or without commentary from director Rob Cohen.

The remaining extra features on the disc are standard fare. We have the theatrical trailer, which is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. There are production notes, which echo some statements made in the booklet included in the DVD case. Lastly, there are talent files, which offer biographies and filmographies, although there was no filmography for Joshua Jackson.

All in all, "The Skulls" is a pretty decent thriller. Sure, the plot is a mixture of several other hit films, but what movie isn’t? The film is very well made and spotlights some of Hollywood’s best young stars. The Collector’s Edition DVD offers a beautiful transfer of the film and an engrossing sound mix. And, as usual, Universal has loaded the disc with many nice extras. (Hey! Whatever happened to "Universal Showcase"? That was my favorite!) You don’t have to wait to be tapped by a secret society to enjoy the action in "The Skulls."