Although it starts out engagingly enough, “King of the Ants” can’t decide whether it wants to be a horror flick, a neo-noir crime caper, or psychological thriller with slasher inclinations. The genre confusion is fatal, and despite the presence of recognizable names, clever writing, and a veteran director, pic will go straight to vid. It should get some cult status on the midnight circuit, though.
Likable Chris McKenna toplines as Sean Crawley, a twentysomething Angeleno painting houses until he can figure what to do with his life. So when burly electrician Duke Wayne (George Wendt, still chugging his “Cheers” beers) asks him how he feels about getting involved in “something kind of immoral,” he doesn’t hesitate long. Turns out the big guy’s boss (a creepy Daniel Baldwin), seemingly a mobbed-up developer, feels threatened by a City Hall accountant (an uncredited Ron Livingston). At first, they ask Sean to tail the dude, then the job escalates, leading to one of the most brutally realistic murder scenes ever filmed.
Our non-hero has gone over the edge, but it turns out that his new benefactors have no intention of paying him. In fact, when he makes one demand too many, he’s whisked off to a prefab house in the desert, where thugs (including “Road Warrior’s” Vernon Wells) proceed to beat Sean’s underdeveloped brains in. Reduced to a senseless beast, he finally escapes, with maximum violence, stumbling back to the city and into capable care of the local soup-kitchen administrator, who just happens to be the dead accountant’s widow (cast standout Kari Wuhrer). Once he begins thinking semi-clearly again, Sean starts wheedling his way into the woman’s life, partly to mitigate his crime and partly out of sheer opportunism.
As long as Charlie Higson’s script, adapted from his own, U.K.-set novel, plumbs these ambiguities, pic remains interesting and even amusing on several levels, not least because much of its noirish action takes place in bright sunlight, with minimal music and other mood-enhancing devices. But helmer Stuart Gordon, who has made pics as disparate as “Re-Animator” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” keeps gunning for the grotesque, too often just to create a shocking image.
Pic ends not with protag coming to grips with his degradation but with that ultimate ’90s action cliche: tough guy walking away from a big explosion without looking back. Image looks more like a set-up for a bad cable series than a decent finish for the offbeat exploitation pic this started out to be.