Picks and Pans Review: The Deceivers

updated 09/05/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/05/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A British officer in India named William Sleeman went undercover as an Indian in 1825 to expose the Thuggees, or Deceivers, a secret cult that robbed and murdered travelers. In adapting John Masters' 1952 account of this real adventure, screenwriter Michael Hirst and director Nicholas (Star Trek II) Meyer have also pumped it up with hot air and hooey. Take the casting. Pierce Brosnan stars as Sleeman, now called Savage. Brosnan, as dozens of slathering close-ups take pains to point out, is dashingly handsome. He used to be charming and witty as well, if memory of TV's Remington Steele serves. Here he is woefully wooden. Brosnan leaves his bride (Helena Michell), paints his face, lives among murderers, partakes of the drug of their god Kali and ends up joining in their stomach-churning ritual stranglings. Through it all, Brosnan rarely looks more than baffled, as if a waiter had brought him the wrong aperitif. The filmmakers are trying to show a descent into madness similar to Martin Sheen's in Apocalypse Now, but what they achieve is more like the violent absurdity of Cruising, in which cop Al Pacino goes undercover to catch a killer of gays and becomes a killer of gays. No matter that producer Ismail Merchant achieves visual wonders on a scant $6 million budget. His Room with a View colleagues—screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhablava and director James Ivory—aren't around this time to supply the necessary social context and character detail. Meyer feeds the audience's appetite for violence, but starves the mind. It's a lousy trade-off. (PG-13)

From Our Partners