12 Monkeys
directed by Terry Gilliam
(Universal, 1995)

In 1985, director Terry Gilliam shocked the world with Brazil, a futuristic fantasy that was the darling of the critics but almost failed to win general release. Ten years later Gilliam has gone back to the dysfunctional future, but this time in a way designed to give audiences what they want: Brad Pitt dropping his drawers.

The result is 12 Monkeys, a time-travel thriller that pits Bruce Willis against Pitt and a virus that nearly wiped out the world.

Willis is James Cole, a convicted felon with violent tendencies who's called upon to undertake a dangerous mission: To go back to 1996 and collect information about the deadly virus so the scientists of his day (roughly 2036 EST) can find a cure for it. Without that cure, it will be the end of life as we know it, or at least life as we know it in sci-fi films.

It's to Gilliam's credit that he takes these time-tested elements (let's not call them cliches) and makes something new, or nearly new, of them. The key to that accomplishment seems to be his nightmarish vision of the future as a gadget-ridden place of unrelenting bureaucracy and expertism, a vision he gave full form in Brazil.

For Gilliam, the future is both minutely detailed and large to the point of overwhelmingness, concocted primarily of wires, plastic and the belief of bureaucrats and scientists that they're making life better for most people, even if they have to subject a few of them to technological torture to get results.

But in 12 Monkeys, Gilliam is just as effective in the past, dropping the unsuspecting Cole into an insane asylum that makes Leavenworth look like summer camp. Here he meets both the irrepressible Jeffrey Gaines (Pitt), a tic-laden paranoid schizophrenic who's enough to drive anybody crazy, and unrelenting psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe), who, try as she may, just can't bring herself to disbelieve Cole's fantastic story of being on a mission from the future.

Unfortunately, Gilliam doesn't fare as well with what's passing as he does with what's past and to come.

While his expressionistic vision of the future sustains the slow pace and the oblique style of his early narrative, and Pitt's performance infuses the past with delightfully dark spontaneity, Gilliam's reconstruction of the present all too often bogs down in routine melodrama and plot untangling, relieved only occasionally by brilliantly realized moments: a red-eyed, near-death Cole swooning to a Fats Domino tune on the radio; Cole, who's been forced by the virus to live most of his life underground, dancing in a near-frozen pond he and Railly discover as they're pursued by police; the team of scientists waking Cole from a time-travel coma with a chorus of "Blueberry Hill."

Fortunately, Gilliam more than redeems himself in the final reel, returning 12 Monkeys to its dark early vision and turning the movie in on itself until we can finally see its twisted inner workings.

Gilliam has certainly been funnier (Monty Python & the Holy Grail), darker (Brazil) and more mystical (The Fisher King) in his past films. But this is the first time he's given audiences a chance to see Pitt with his pants down. For some, that may make it all worthwhile. As for me, I'll take Brazil.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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