That wasn't bad like a Schumacher Batman movie, but it certainly wasn't good. I was cheering for the bad guys.
The film's problem is that it's based on real life. It's about a secret society called the Skulls, at a university which is never actually said to be Yale University but has big "Y" emblems everywhere and sings Yale songs. This is in reference to the conspiracy theories surrounding the real Skull and Bones student society at Yale that's been running since 1832 and has among its members both George Bushes. It's also boring. These guys are lame villains. The film doesn't dare accuse them of anything interesting, so in the end I think we're supposed to be left with the impression that they're evil in some kind of vague unspecified way that doesn't boil down to having done anything particularly bad.
Let me describe what terrible people these Skulls are. They turbo-charge your bank account with silly numbers of zeroes, help you fulfil all your professional ambitions and give you unlimited cars and girls. HOWEVER... you can't tell their secrets to anyone! This sounds sensible to me. If it became widely known what kind of deal these guys were offering, they'd be beating off about a billion applications a day. Admittedly some of them are rich jerks, but we were expecting that.
Pitted up against the forces of darkness is Joshua Jackson, who I believe was in Dawson's Creek and The Mighty Ducks. He's not a horrible actor, but he's nowhere near ready to carry a film. Check out how unconvincing he is when defending a girl's honour in the cafeteria. Anyway, he's playing a lower-class guy who's giving his friends the brush-off so that he can join the Skulls, only to start acting all pre-menstrual and whiny as soon as something slightly dodgy happens. So someone died. Big deal. You've joined the Evil Team, what did you expect? It's not even as if what happened was that unforgiveable. The son was being an idiot, but he didn't actually mean anyone any harm. The father was a proud father. If Jackson had really wanted to find out the truth and see the guilty punished, there must have been better ways of going about it than turning all Jason Bourne and forcing the Skulls to treat him as an enemy.
One could choose to interpret gay subtext. Jackson and his best friend Hill Harper are so close that Harper will throw a drama queen snit and flounce out of the room if he thinks Jackson has found some new friends, while for his part Jackson is about to go in for all that idiocy I've been talking about. Early on, Harper points out that Jackson isn't getting women. Finally this lower-class bonding is being contrasted with the "call girls on demand" heterosexual world of the Skulls. Admittedly there's a hot love interest (Leslie Bibb), but even there at first Jackson actively rejects suggestions that he ask her out. We're supposed to think they make love, but... hey, no nudity.
Hang on, I forgot the "soul mates" thing. Skulls (who are all male) are paired off for life into "soul mates". Okay, the homoeroticism just got more complicated.
However in fairness, this is a counter-reading. The film thinks it's all about privilege and class, so Jackson thinks he's rejecting Bibb because he's not rich enough for her. That's why he waits until he's a Skull before asking her out. However the gay reading is funnier.
The best thing here is Craig T. Nelson, who was the father in Poltergeist
. There are some more mature Skulls, thank goodness. Nelson can act. He's good. The older actors here manage to pull off the difficult feat of getting you over the inherent silliness of the whole thing, from the wrist-branding with red-hot irons (really?) to the tweens trying to sound scary in red monks' robes. If these guys are so secret, why do they hang out in a cathedral on campus that everyone knows is the Skulls' building? The opening titles tell us that "at least three US presidents are known to have been members" of secret societies, but don't take that as a hint that there's going to be any scope or ambition in the plot.
I liked the ending, though. Well, relatively speaking. The Skulls turn out to be not so bad after all and it gets personal between the various players involved, which is more interesting than I thought it was going to be. Jackson is offered another chance to be a Skull and says no. Why? Idiot. The end.
This isn't one of those obviously bad schlock-fests at which you can line up to throw vegetables, but instead an efficiently made film that happens to be so underwhelming in every department that it's of no interest at all. The hero's actions are hard to justify and he's played by a mediocre actor. The villains barely count as villains. They're too camp to be scary, but not camp enough to be funny. This film got pretty much trashed on release, but it nonetheless spawned two straight-to-DVD sequels that until this morning I had sitting in my queue but have now discarded. I'm me, by the way. I'd watch the fourth episode of Shit On Toast if I'd watched the previous three, but this franchise simply has nothing to offer. Well, almost. Skulls II apparently has girls running around in their underwear.