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

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

We’re looking into a possible pattern of nationwide anti-Catholic hate crimes.

Vampires aka John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter limps less-than-boldly onward, his desiccated cadaver no longer attentive to the filmic basics of quality, taste, discernment, rhyme or reason. Apparently, he made his pre-penultimate picture to see if his enthusiasm for the process truly had drained away, and he only went and discovered he really enjoyed himself. It doesn’t show. Vampires is as flat, lifeless, shoddily shot, framed and edited as the majority of his ’90s output, only with a repellent veneer of macho bombast spread on top to boot.

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

Maybe I’m a heel who hates guys who hate heels.

Crimewave (1985) (SPOILERS) A movie’s makers’ disowning it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing of worth therein, just that they don’t find anything of worth in it. Or the whole process of making it too painful to contemplate. Sam Raimi’s had a few of those, experiencing traumas with Darkman a few years after Crimewave . But I, blissfully unaware of such issues, was bowled over by it when I caught it a few years after its release (I’d hazard it was BBC2’s American Wave 2 season in 1988). This was my first Sam Raimi movie, and I was instantly a fan of whoever it was managed to translate the energy and visual acumen of a cartoon to the realm of live action. The picture is not without its problems – and at least some of them directly correspond to why it’s so rueful for Raimi – but that initial flair I recognised still lifts it.

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

You cut my head off a couple of dozen times.

Boss Level (2021) (SPOILERS) Lest you thought it was nigh-on impossible to go wrong with a Groundhog Day premise, Joe Carnahan, in his swaggering yen for overkill, very nearly pulls it off with Boss Level . I’m unsure quite what became of Carnahan’s early potential, but he seems to have settled on a sub-Tarantino, sub-Bay, sub-Snyder, sub-Ritchie butch bros aesthetic, complete with a tin ear for dialogue and an approach to plotting that finds him continually distracting himself, under the illusion it’s never possible to have too much. Of whatever it is he’s indulging at that moment.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.