Skulls [2000]

Think of the Skulls as a collegiate Freemason's society--an ultrasecret organization that opens the doors of power to a few lucky Ivy League students, including school rowing star Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson), a poor kid with a misspent youth. "If it's secret and it's elite, it can't be good," cautions his journalist roommate, but the lure of lavish gifts and cabal-like ceremonies in torch-lit stone chambers is too much to resist--until his roomie is murdered and his own Skull "soulmate" Caleb Mandrake (Paul Walker) is the number one suspect. There's a campy kick to the initiation ceremonies, ancient rituals in dungeonlike alcoves filled with haze and shadow, performed by enthralled frat boys, but as Jackson flounders at the center of a Skull conspiracy it spins into ludicrous melodrama. See the college president become a thug for the Skull godfather! See street punks become high-tech criminal masterminds! See the conspiracy collapse under its own absurdity! Jackson is pretty much a dud as the well-meaning hero, but Walker, with flashing eyes under furrowed brow, is mesmerizing as a haunted rich kid torn between a ruthless, overbearing father (Craig T. Nelson) and his conscience. Director Rob Cohen drives the film at a galloping pace and fills it with foreboding images, but his humorless solemnity finally buries The Skulls in a heap of clich├ęs. --Sean Axmaker

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