Skip to main content

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures

(SPOILERS) “I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese, when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners, Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II, the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

It would be fair to say a prolific career in comedy was no longer Cleese’s priority by the time he made A Fish Called Wanda. He was dealing with messy family business and Shrink-age (Families and How to Survive Them and Life and How to Survive It, written with therapist Robin Skynner). He was making corporate training videos, and making a lot of money from them. He also married the above-mentioned now ex-wife, also a therapist. There was time for bit parts (Silverado) and a lead in a movie he didn’t originate (Clockwise), and Monty Python’s last shout (The Meaning of Life), of course. Consequently, A Fish Called Wanda seemed to justify all that lack of comedic direction, bringing all these threads together and allow them to cohere; he was still in the game, still motivated. It was as important a solo career move as Fawlty Towers had been.

But then. Everyone had a good time making A Fish Called Wanda, and everyone agreed it would be nice to reunite. It took seven years. In the meantime, Cleese appeared in Erik the Viking, Michael Winner classic Bullseye! and Francis Ford Coppola’s Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; after Fierce Creatures he’d pick up where he left off, offering textbook condescension in the Q/R role in Bond, voice work in Shrek, and basically any low-maintenance pay cheque jobs that would contribute to all that alimony. Fierce Creatures began shooting in 1995 under the direction of Robert Young, a serviceable TV director – G.B.H., Jeeves and Wooster – and a variable big screen one – Vampire Circus, Eric Idle abomination Splitting Heirs. In which Cleese cameoed. In other words, Young was not exactly the British screen legend Charles Crichton was, but maybe it didn't matter too much. It was all about the screenplay, the great idea, and the ensemble working their magic. Right?

Well, yes. And no. Test audiences didn’t like Fierce Creatures’ ending, in which, it is suggested, both Kevin Kline’s characters (Murdoch-esque mogul Rod McCain and his son Vince) are gored to death by rhinos. Which seems like a curious thing to single out, of all the possible issues one might have with the material. Cast and crew reconvened a year later – Michael Palin was busy until then – for reshoots. Carey Lowell, Robert Lindsay and Derek Griffiths weren’t available, which is why they largely disappear for the final forty minutes. This substantial alteration also explains the co-directing credit for Fred Schepisi. Had it only been the ending, Young – who was also unavailable – would doubtless have retained sole credit (it seems Cleese had been discussing a Don Quixote project with Fred – not with Gilliam! – and it’s reasonable to assume this came about at Steve Martin’s suggestion, Martin being pally with Cleese and having starred in Roxanne for the director).

Cleese had written the screenplay with critic and biographer Iain Johnstone – often an ill omen: see also Peter Bradshaw; but then again, Peter Bogdanovich – but William Goldman was brought in to help retool the ending. Cleese would doubtless argue none of this was new. On WandaI think we altogether had 13 screenings after the re-shoots, and edited the film 12 times… Ultimately, the audience tells you what works”. There, Archie Leach ends up with Wanda romantically, in contrast to the “darker, much darker, more sinister ending” where it’s clear she’s taking him for a ride. Curtis was initially pissed at this, seeing it as “tilting towards this American sentimentality and faux romanticism and all of this bullshit”.

The difference, though, is that A Fish Called Wanda had a strong spine. A direction. It was cops and robbers and jewels with a romance plot in the middle, however much tweaking went on with the latter. Even the earlier Clockwise had a strong sense of trajectory and urgency. Fierce Creatures boasted none of those that. Was it inspired by Cleese’s love of lemurs ("I adore lemurs. They're extremely gentle, well-mannered, pretty and yet great fun ... I should have married one")? Perhaps the animal motif that had served him well for A Fish Called Wanda – both in title and sick canine carnage humour – felt superstitiously appropriate. Whatever the reasoning, or lack thereof, the “keeping a zoo open” premise is desperately thin.

Octopus Inc’s Rod McCain counts the zoo among his numerous acquisitions, one that needs to make twenty percent profits or it will be kyboshed. His idiot son Vince is fixated on Curtis’ Willa Weston, employed to run the zoo, while Cleese is Rollo Lee, a retired policeman appointed as the zoo director and working on the principal that fiercer creatures will attract more visitors. Yeah, it’s a mess. Where’s the through line? You can put together a series of weak sketches about making cute animals look fearsome, sure. You can even have tit-for-tat attempts by Rollo to convince the staff he’s shooting the unaggressive animals while the staff produce mutilated guests.

And you can wheel on old Cleese pals like Ronnie Corbett and Derek Griffiths (the former desperately unfunny, but I can’t say I was ever a fan). None of the zookeepers, bar Palin, have a character to speak of, and Lindsay’s a particular bust (I’m guessing Young and Palin vouched for him). Cleese was most likely a fan of Licence to Kill’s Bond girl (one of them), understandably so, but the only discernible reason Lowell is in the movie is a scene where she strips to her underwear and another where she sports a revealing leopard costume.

And that’s without discussing the main quartet. Cleese and Johnstone simply haven’t thrashed out decent main characters. Curtis probably fares best, since Willa’s wryly amused pose, fending off Vince while finding Rollo strangely alluring, isn’t so far from Wanda. It certainly isn’t an embarrassment of a role, but it’s nevertheless stricken, since the others are nothing.

Palin’s playing a sketch as Adrian Bugsy Malone, possibly based one of his Python chartered accountant (who wanted to become a lion tamer, appropriately enough); his adroit monotone is reliable, but there’s never the remotest sense that he’s an active part of the ensemble, so it feels as if he’s been entirely wasted (except at the reworked climax).

Kline’s Vince is a weak-sauce Otto, awarded only the objectionable-sex-pest aspects of Otto, none of the memorably abrasive flourishes and only a smattering of the Anglophobia. Vince only makes an impression – again – during the climax, when he’s impersonating his father Rod. Who is a brash, farting Australian, more the type Mike Myers would play, or Barry Humphries for that matter (Kline also seems to be attempting to channel Jim Carrey at points, always inadvisable). Palin said of A Fish Called Wanda, “I think Kevin’s performance really gave the film its energy”, and the black hole in Fierce Creatures is surely at least partly for that reason.

Cleese’s Rollo is similarly ill-defined. The Basil tache tells you he isn’t trying for the dashing romantic league this time, and Cleese is more in Cary Grant in North by Northwest age range at this point anyway, but without wearing it as well. The character’s a muddle – smart at times, stupid at others – but mostly never pinned down enough to make the romance with Willa viable or persuasive (she seems to be attracted to him because… she’s amused that he’s somehow able to pull off non-stop orgies?)

Quite possibly it was the Goldman factor, but the climax does suddenly manage to click into place, with characters functioning effectively together and comic timing in evidence. You’ve got Rod kneeing Malone in the balls, Malone accidentally shooting Rod in the head (better than goring?) and going out farting, and Kline finding his comic mojo as Vince impersonating Rod (for the sake of a $7bn inheritance), delivering a crap Australian accent while all assembled attempt to engineer the discovery of the actual Rod – experiencing one of his “black moods” – by Gareth Hunt’s inspector at the crucial moment.

It’s a hint of what Fierce Creatures might have been, were it not for the fatal premise and fumbled characters. Much of the material is otherwise feeble, overfamiliar or mistimed. Rollo sucking blood from someone he believes to be faking it (“Christopher Lee, more like”) is just the wrong side of gross.

As is the realisation that daughter Cynthia is playing a keeper, one repeatedly assumed to be up to sauciness with Rollo. Perhaps Alyce advised John casting his daughter as a zookeeper continually assumed to be shagging his character wasn’t the best thing for his (or her) personal development. Or perhaps she advised precisely the reverse. Funny sorts, psychotherapists, after all. Show them a hotdog sausage and they give you a withering look. Who knows what goes through Cleese’s head, then or now, aside from being a paid-up member of the black-eye club.

The running gags of Rollo having orgies – animals with girls’ names behaving rambunctiously in his bedroom – isn’t funny enough to be a running gag. There are standard-issue breast bawdries (Jamie’s) and a few decent lines about corporate attitudes (“We’ve got the television rights to their public executions. Five days a week guaranteed worldwide”) and elitism (“Sheep are exactly like people, you know. Give them a couple of meals a day, and they just stand there quietly… until you eat them”). It’s a telling sign, though, when a highlight involves drawing inspiration from Weekend at Bernie’s.

One might take a positive view of the animal-conservation element, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home style (it’s dedicated to Gerald Durrell… and Peter Cook, who wanted “to see every endangered species wiped off the fucking face of the Earth”). But zoological parks aren’t exactly in favour these days.

I’d assumed Fierce Creatures was a resounding flop, but it appears to have made $40m on a $25m budget. Not a hit by any means, but by this point it’s most likely made its money back. Cleese, nearing sixty when the comedy came out, couldn’t be bothered with any new ideas subsequently, aside from a story credit on The Croods. Even the title Fierce Creatures is vaguely antiseptic, as if they were stuck with it because they couldn’t come up with anything better (should have kept Death Fish II). Goldman might have better advised starting from scratch, but Cleese let himself be a slave to the focus groups, and it rather capsized his cinematic boat for good.

Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

If this were a hoax, would we have six dead men up on that mountain?

The X-Files 4.24: Gethsemane   Season Four is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement’s on Three’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi .

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

You have a very angry family, sir.

Eternals (2021) (SPOILERS) It would be overstating the case to suggest Eternals is a pleasant surprise, but given the adverse harbingers surrounding it, it’s a much more serviceable – if bloated – and thematically intriguing picture than I’d expected. The signature motifs of director and honestly-not-billionaire’s-progeny Chloé Zhao are present, mostly amounting to attempts at Malick-lite gauzy natural light and naturalism at odds with the rigidly unnatural material. There’s woke to spare too, since this is something of a Kevin Feige Phase Four flagship, one that rather floundered, showcasing his designs for a nu-MCU. Nevertheless, Eternals manages to maintain interest despite some very variable performances, effects, and the usual retreat into standard tropes, come the final big showdown.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

I think it’s wonderful the way things are changing.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) (SPOILERS) The meticulous slightness of Driving Miss Daisy is precisely the reason it proved so lauded, and also why it presented a prime Best Picture pick: a feel-good, social-conscience-led flick for audiences who might not normally spare your standard Hollywood dross a glance. One for those who appreciate the typical Judi Dench feature, basically. While I’m hesitant to get behind anything Spike Lee, as Hollywood’s self-appointed race-relations arbiter, spouts, this was a year when he actually did deliver the goods, a genuinely decent movie – definitely a rarity for Lee – addressing the issues head-on that Driving Miss Daisy approaches in softly-softly fashion, reversing gingerly towards with the brake lights on. That doesn’t necessarily mean Do the Right Thing ought to have won Best Picture (or even that it should have been nominated for the same), but it does go to emphasise the Oscars’ tendency towards the self-congratulatory rather than the provocat

You’re the pattern and the prototype for a whole new age of biological exploration.

The Fly II (1989) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg was not, it seems, a fan of the sequel to his hit 1986 remake, and while it’s quite possible he was just being snobby about a movie that put genre staples above theme or innovation, he wasn’t alone. Fox had realised, post- Aliens , that SF properties were ripe for hasty follow ups, and indiscriminately mined a number of popular pictures to immediately diminishing returns during the period ( Cocoon , Predator ). Neither critics nor audiences were impressed. In the case of The Fly II , though, it would be unfair to label the movie as outright bad. It simply lacks that *idea* that would justify the cash-in.