Stuart Gordon's early films, especially his H.P. Lovecraft adaptations RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, showed an ability to juggle potentially dark material with humor, which prevented the material from ever appearing too nasty and also allowed the films to enjoy a certain amount of crossover success. By the early years of the 21st century, however, Gordon's view of the world seemed noticeably darker, with him preferring bleak character studies of desperate people to lighthearted monster movies. This is especially evident in his adaptation of Charles Higson's novel KING OF THE ANTS.
When crooked real estate developer Ray Matthews (Daniel Baldwin) and his cohort Duke (George Wendt) need someone to tail and then murder a District Attorney who has evidence against them, they choose Sean Crawley (Chris McKenna), an amiable enough guy who makes ends meet by drifting from one odd job to the next. Sean is, as Duke says, an ant - someone who goes about his life doing insignificant things until he dies and is replaced by someone just like him. After Sean performs the hit, Ray decides to tie up loose ends by killing Sean. He's unable to do this, however, since Sean has hidden the D.A.'s evidence as insurance against just such an event. Thus begins an ever increasing battle for dominance between Sean and Ray.
KING OF THE ANTS is a film that asks just how far someone will go in order to survive. Sean goes from a nice guy who paints houses for a few dollars to illegally following someone to murder for hire to multiple murder, all in the name of his own self preservation. Not only can Sean justify everything he does, but in taking ruthless revenge on those who tried to use him he finally finds what he's good at. By pushing Sean too far, Ray and Duke have awakened a monster willing to do anything in order to preserve his self interests.
KING OF THE ANTS is a grueling film, especially during a protracted second act sequence where Ray tries to dispose of Sean without killing him by turning him into a vegetable. This part of the film is extremely hard to watch. There are a few missteps, most notably Sean's romance with the D.A.'s widow (Kari Wuhrer), which strains credibility and doesn't really add anything to the film. For the most part, however, KING OF THE ANTS is a tense, well acted and often brutal portrait of a man discovering the monster within himself. It's not necessarily a fun night at the movies but those who are up for it will most likely find it a rewarding experience.
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