King of the Ants (July 3/04)
Stuart Gordon has made a career out of directing unusual horror/science fiction films, including genre classics like Re-Animator and Robot Jox. The most notable exception to this was 1998's The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, a bland and innocuous fantasy that's best left forgotten. Now, with King of the Ants, Gordon steps outside the familiar - though not entirely, just take a look at that picture for crying out loud - with this unusual story about revenge and redemption.
Chris McKenna stars as Sean Crawley, an ordinary guy making ends meet by taking odd jobs. While working one such job, he meets Duke (George Wendt) - a helpful electrician who hooks Sean up with the shady Ray Mathews (Daniel Baldwin, doing a fairly accurate impression of his brother Alec). Ray first hires Sean to follow around a government official (played by Ron Livingston), but soon inquires as to whether or not Sean might be willing to murder said official. Sean accepts, and while the execution goes off without a hitch, Sean's problems are just beginning.
The most surprising thing about King of the Ants is the degree to which the various characters have been developed. Gordon, working from Charlie Higson's script (who adapted from his own novel), takes his time in setting things up - ensuring that the first half of the film is far more engaging than the second. Once the revenge stuff begins to kick in, King of the Ants becomes the sort of story we've seen many times before.
That Sean's transformation from slacker to hitman is as believable as it is has a lot to do with McKenna's engaging performance. The film marks his first stab at a leading role, and he's clearly got the talent and screen presence to hold our interest. Among the supporting cast, Gordon has effectively filled the different roles with a strong group of actors. Having George "Norm!" Wendt play a ruthless scumbag is certainly an interesting choice, but it works. Kari Wuhrer - as a possible love interest for Sean - sidesteps her expected sultry vixen persona and convincingly becomes a more vulnerable figure.
Visually, Gordon employs a grittier style than we've come to expect from him - something that actually serves the material quite well, even if it does take a while to get used to the shakey camera. It's interesting to note that the characters are much more compelling than the storyline, which isn't what one normally associates with a Gordon movie. And hey, you just can't go wrong with Vernon Wells (who played the incredibly over-the-top villain in Commando) as a sympathetic bad guy.