The Skulls (2000) — White dudes in shadowy rooms

“We live by the rules, we die by the rules.”

Justin’s rating: I’d want to join the Stonecutters, anyway. Who controls the British crown? We do! We do!

Justin’s review: Here’s the thing: if you happen to belong to a so-called “secret society,” which is sort of like a fraternity where you’re just more into ritual human sacrifice and wearing goofy robes, then you’re automatically a net negative for the human race. It’s a fact, ask anyone. Why anyone has a deep-rooted need in their life to play “clubhouse” as an adult and make it into a grand, pompous gesture of insecurity is beyond me.

One of the best-known “secret” societies — a society so secret it was made into a 2000 film called The Skulls which now has two sequels — is Yale University’s Skull and Bones. In the roster of Skull and Bones includes three U.S. presidents: Howard Taft, George Bush, and George W. Bush. Sorry guys, but… you’re not helping. Not so fast, cackling Democrats! You know who also is a member? John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate. ‘S true. Also a dork. It’s funny, if slightly disturbing, to read transcripts of both Kerry and Bush who not-so-skillfully evaded questions about Skull & Bones during their 2004 campaigns.* Almost enough to suspect a conspiracy, eh?

Or, if the organization is anything like this film, we don’t have anything to worry about a grand master plan, because this secret society is intensely involved in decorating a basement with coffins, stealing weather vanes, and performing circa-1800 duels with flintlock pistols at ten paces. I think we’re pretty safe.

The Skulls wanted to be a junior version of The Firm so bad, you can see it straining to the point where it wets itself. As in The Firm, The Skulls focuses on a poor-yet-lovable lawyer to be named Luke (Joshua Jackson), who eagerly rushes into the rank and file of this university’s (Yale is never explicitly mentioned, but feel free to assume) most prominent society. He’s given riches and a branding on the wrist, but soon discovers that this is an insidious organization dedicated to murder and blackmail and weasel out of their Columbia House CD contracts. He wants to get out, but can’t, and must somehow work as an insider agent to bring down the society while protecting his one true love (who, I should mention, paints with a robotic shotgun. No — I didn’t just make that up.).

For all its effort to be The Firm 2: Die Firmer, The Skulls tilts over the edge of extreme implausibility early on and careens down the slopes faster than any audience member could follow with a straight face. Filmmakers often talk about believability in their movies, that the audience has to at least partially buy into what they’re seeing as real within the context of that fictional universe. Make it too weird or too disjointed, and the audience disconnects, often with mocking laughter.

It’s best just to give up on The Skulls, disconnect early, and see where the ride takes you. As a fatty slice of movie, it can be enjoyable as long as you don’t pay close attention to the nutritional contents listed on the side of the box. Luke is a nice, if dense, fellow; his love interest Chloe (Leslie Bibb) is obviously deranged; and the exploration into the flimsy machinations of the secret society makes for an interesting couple hours.

In addition to the items I listed above, The Skulls is notable for the following features:

  1. Their main meeting room is dominated by a huge marble cutout of the word “WAR”, which is given an unsatisfying explanation. Nobody in this movie finds this remotely as funny as I do. I would’ve given my eye teeth to have one of the gentlemen suddenly burst out singing “WAR! GOOD GOD Y’ALL! WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? ABSOLUTELY NOTHIN’! HUH!”
  2. As part of the newcomer’s initiation, they have to be lowered with others in a steel cage into a pit, where they have to tell each other their most intimate secrets. It’s share time!
  3. People in The Skulls are paired up into teams of “soul mates.” Every time they use the phrase “soul mate,” it made me giggle. “Don’t do this!” Luke cries. “You’re my soul mate!” Hehe!
  4. Everything in this secret society building is videotaped (in full sound, no less), and the tapes are transported — twice a day — across campus to a secret room in the library, accessible only if you pull the right book and the shelves open up and you evade Shaggy and Scooby-Doo. Curse those meddling fools!
  5. As far as I can tell, the entire organization is built on mutual blackmail, to the point where nobody can really trust anyone else not to stab them in the back, but they’re also supposed to be intensely loyal to each other to the point of death.
  6. And there are hookers.

Golly gee, being a Skull sure sounds like a whimsical dream through the land of fruitcake and dreams. Too bad I’m busy leading a healthy life where, right now, I’m 13 minutes late for work because I’m writing this for my top-secret website. Get out while you still can!

*In interviews with “Meet The Press”, Bush and Kerry had this to say about their involvement with Skull and Bones: BUSH: It’s so secret, we can’t talk about it. KERRY: It’s a secret… There are all kinds of secrets.

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