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Friday 13 January 2023

Burl reviews 12 Monkeys! (1995)


Chee-chee-chee, it’s Burl here with sweet monkey madness! Ha ha, when you think of Terry Gilliam, you think of big fantasy films that were made under circumstances so impossible it’s a miracle they were ever finished! The Adventures of Baron Munchausen fits into this category of course, and we all know Gilliam has faced an uncommon number of hurdles in his filmmaking: from studio heads who didn’t get or like what he was doing, to catastrophes like the death of his lead actor! Though they’re usually the bigger hits on first release, I think these days we tend to forget his relatively smaller, scandal-free, and less fantastical films – The Fisher King, for instance, or the picture under review today, 12 Monkeys!

Of course, seeing as it involves time travel, 12 Monkeys is hardly free of fantastical elements, and there certainly is imagery that evokes fantasy, like the marvelous shots of zoo animals loose in the city! But the picture mostly aspires to ground-level (or below) grittiness, especially in its future segments, which take place after a terrible airborne plague has killed most of Earth’s human population and forced the survivors to take up a subterranean lifestyle! Our hero is a prisoner in this benighted time, meaning his lifestyle is worse yet; but he is volunteered by a very Gilliam-esque panel of scientist-grotesques to travel back in time, find out how the plague started, and hopefully help find a cure!

This grim slaphead, Cole, is played by Bruce Willis from Die Hard and Last Man Standing, and on his first time-travel attempt he overshoots his mark and lands in 1990! There he’s immediately arrested and confined as a looney in a local hospital for the mentally insane! Here he meets two crucial characters: Jeffrey, a hyper-verbal jumpabout played by Brad Pitt from Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, and sympathetic Dr. Kathryn Railly, essayed by Madeline Stowe from Stakeout and Short Cuts! Ha ha, he also meets The Riddler himself, Frank Gorshin from Hot Resort and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, a mean doctor who wants to keep Cole locked up! But with the help of future people the time traveller escapes his solitary cell, and the next thing you know he’s been bumped forward to 1996, the first year of the plague!

His adventures in that year comprise the bulk of the picture and provide clarification on his mission! Believing that Jeffrey, whose father is a world-renowned specialist in infectious viruses played by Christopher Plummer from The Silent Partner and Murder By Decree, and who is involved with an animal rights group called 12 Monkeys, will be responsible for loosing the virus upon the world, Cole tracks him to a dinner party; but only later does he realize that a marble-eyed lab assistant played by David Morse from Max Dugan Returns may also have something to do with the terrible events to come!


Cole is not a very talkative person, having had his mind scrambled by catastrophe, incarceration, and time travel, and it seems no matter what period he’s in, people want to give him Silkwood showers! In other words he’s a tough character to enjoy, even if he’s easy to understand, and he sure isn’t a lot of laughs! But he loosens up as the picture progresses, and after he kidnaps Dr. Railly becomes a slightly more conventional hero, and the movie threatens to become commensurately less interesting!  Ha ha! But it rallies with some marvelous plotting in the last act, though there’s also a crude bit of misdirection involving Dr. Railly that the movie doesn’t need! It’s all based on Chris Marker’s La Jetée, a movie I enjoy, and which is most evoked in the airport scene that concludes Gilliam’s version!

It's a good, intelligent bit of speculative fiction, and I remember it really stood out in the mid-90s as something thrillingly different! Yes, it’s a bit of a downer in our pandemic-ridden times, but it has plenty to make up for it! Pitt’s performance is highly entertaining, and it’s nice to see Gilliam’s excesses presented in such a controlled manner! It’s no Brazil (a movie I love, ha ha), but it has plenty of its own charms! I give 12 Monkeys three ropes of saliva!

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