The shadowy doings and political influence of secret societies like Yale’s Skull and Bones could indeed form the basis for a smart, revealing suspense drama that plumbs a hidden vein of American power. But that potential is wasted in “The Skulls,” a silly, hackneyed college suspenser put across with all the contrived banality of a bad ’70s TV movie. As the majors’ recent gamble on teen auds continues its skid into diminishing returns, this embarrassment will be just another indicator of an overmined market. After an initial B.O. lift provided by young fans of bland “Dawson’s Creek” star Joshua Jackson, pic promises to do its Yorick act in increasingly depopulated graveyards.
John Pogue’s paint-by-numbers script begins by letting us know that hero Luke McNamara (Jackson) didn’t get into his swell Ivy League school due to silver-spoon origins. A kid from the blue-collar side of town, he still has roughneck friends on the streets and a long-standing best friend at college, Will (Hill Harper), who warns him sternly against secret societies.
Still, Luke is curious and drawn by the implicit promise of social advancement, so that when the Skulls come to tap him for membership, he’s ready. His recruitment is handled in a risibly hokey manner that typifies the film: Drugged unconscious, the inductees awake in coffins arrayed inside a group lair that looks like an old Hammer Films set. As group custom dictates, Luke’s assigned another inductee as a “soul mate.” His, Caleb Mandrake (Paul Walker), is a chiseled athlete whose imperious father, Litten (Craig T. Nelson), is the head of the Skulls’ national organization.
Naturally, the secret society is as rich as the World Bank and as powerful as the Trilateral Commission and will stop at nothing to protect its interests. After Will, egged on by Luke’s would-be girlfriend Chloe (Leslie Bibb), goes snooping into Skulls business, he turns up dead. It looks like a suicide, but then the distraught Luke comes to believe that Caleb did it, a discovery that hastens his break with the group and propels the film into the flurry of standard-issue chase scenes and preposterous plot twists that constitute its latter third.
Helmer Rob Cohen applies a heavy hand that does nothing but accentuate the story’s formulaic nature, and his efforts are compounded by Shane Hurlbut’s garishly glossy lensing, which verges on self-satire in using enough gauzy filters for a season’s worth of perfume ads.
Adding to the impression of mediocre television transferred to the bigscreen, Jackson performs capably enough in a role that calls for little beyond stolid uprightness. Walker, who made strong impressions in “Varsity Blues” and “Pleasantville,” here is asked only to look pretty and troubled; he does. Hill and Bibb are likewise fine in parts that are straight out of cliche central.
Other tech credits are adequate to a production that looks cheap and fast throughout.