Terry Gilliam /1995 /USA /129 mins
Available on Blu-Ray Mon 15th Oct 2018
Terry Gilliam’s expanded remake of experimental French sci-fi film La Jetee follows prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) as he takes part in a mission that sees him travelling from a virus-ravaged Philadelphia in 2035 to Baltimore in the 1990’s in order to find the origin of the virus so that a cure can be found. When in the 20th Century, Cole’s claims to be from the future land him in a mental hospital on the orders of the initially sceptical Dr Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), where he meets manic patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), who in the future will be linked to the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, the terrorist group who unleashed the virus.
Gilliam once again presents a bleak, dystopian vision of the future, but one that differs from the semi-period aesthetics of Brazil, instead including surrealistic early visuals of Cole traversing a deserted Philadelphia and encountering a bear – animals being the only living beings inhabiting the city as a result of the virus. However, Gilliam also effectively represses his usual stylised approach for the film’s 1996-set second half, with Cole and Railly’s race to find the person responsible for unleashing the virus whilst being pursued by the police resembling a smarter variant of the typical action-thrillers of the era.
As Cole, Willis gives a more vulnerable performance than the wise-cracking action heroes he often played at this point in his career. In particular, he effectively portrays Cole’s growing confusion regarding his mission and even his identity, as well as his overwhelmed response to hearing 20th Century music. Pitt also goes beyond his usual range in his portrayal of Goines, providing the character with a manic energy through his rapid-fire speeches that never grates or feels overdone. Stowe also convincingly depicts Railly’s shift from a detached expert who is disbelieving of Cole to a more intense and emotional performance as she helps him uncover the location of the Twelve Monkeys, falling in love with him in the process.
Overall, Twelve Monkeys is a thrilling expansion of a cult classic that allows Gilliam to take what could be a cliched mainstream premise and make it his own, also enabling Willis and Pitt to step outside their comfort zones to deliver two impressive performances.