Back-To-School Month: "The Skulls" Review

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Luke McNamara, a college senior from a working class background joins a secret elitist college fraternity organization called "The Skulls".
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Back-To-School Month: "The Skulls" Review

Rating: PG-13 (violence and brief sexuality)
Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: March 31, 2000
Directed by: Rob Cohen
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller

Luke (Joshua Jackson) is what students at the posh college that is the setting for "The Skulls" call a townie. That means that he was born and raised locally, unlike most of his fellow students, who hail from all across the country. He works very hard when he's not in school or at practice as a rising star on the rowing team. His bank account balance is barely in the double digits, which makes him fret over whether he will be able to afford law school when he graduates. His good friends Will (Hill Harper) and Chloe (Leslie Bibb), the latter of whom he is secretly in love with, try to cheer him up like good friends do.

One day, Luke's luck takes a big turn for the better when he is approached by leaders of a secret society called the Skulls to take part in their initiation rituals. The group is well connected and has many resources that members can draw from, which is exactly what a poor college student dreams of. He willingly joins, even as Chloe and Will warn him that something is just not right about Skulls member Caleb Mandrake (Paul Walker) and the rest of the group. He gleefully ignores their protests, which alienates him from both of them. Luckily, he has a new set of Skulls brothers whom he bonds with, and that distracts him from his broken friendships.

Luke's seeming good fortune takes a turn when Will turns up dead after trying to investigate the group. A mournful Luke believes that members of the group are responsible for his death, so he tries to devise a way to leave the group. The problem is that once a person is sworn in as a member, the only way to leave the group is through death. Luke reconciles with Chloe, and together, they begin to investigate Will's death and try to find a way for Luke to leave the group that doesn't involve a coffin.

The film goes deep into the secretive world of a mysterious group called the Skulls, but clues appear throughout the movie indicating that this is supposed to be based on the real-life group called Skull and Bones, which has included several U.S. presidents among its members. Skull and Bones is a secret society at Yale University and is nearly as mysterious as the Skulls. Though the college portrayed in "The Skulls" is never actually named, the "Y" logo all through the school's hallways and the New Haven setting tell viewers everything they need to know..

Another fun aspect of "The Skulls" for viewers is the fact that several of the elder Skulls members bear uncanny similarities to real-life public figures, particularly politicians. The film practically challenges viewers to guess which characters are supposed to be stand-ins for real politicians. For example, Caleb's father, Litten, carries himself in much the way that George Bush did while he was President, while Caleb bears similarities to George W. Bush, who would be inaugurated as President of the United States less than a year after the film was released. The younger Bush is a confirmed member of the real Skull and Bones, which just adds to the intrigue surrounding the fictional group in the film. Petersen's character has a mop of silver hair and a Southern accent that is a not-so-subtle homage to former President Bill Clinton, who went to Yale Law School. The film implies that a very powerful group of politicians is at the heart of the Skulls, then proves it with obvious references to real politicians. Writer John Pogue buries just enough clues to make the guessing a fun part of the viewing experience, even as the drama onscreen ramps up and this initially quiet mystery film grows into a full-blown thriller.

Director Rob Cohen knows how to take a film from being evenly paced to frenetic in seconds, a process he has used to great effect in other efforts such as "The Fast and the Furious," which also stars Walker. Though Pogue's script was already good, Cohen adds to it by framing the chase scenes perfectly and really drawing the audience into the action. It turns what could have been a fairly formulaic mystery into something much more entertaining, making "The Skulls" a welcome addition to the pantheon of films that have sought to blow the lids off of secret societies.

Rating: 3 out of 5