The film begins in the mid-21st century, long after a virus has forced the surviving members of the human race to live underground. Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, a convict who is sent to 1996, immediately before the virus’ release, on a fact-finding mission. Time-travel technology is apparently not quite perfect, however; he lands in 1990 and ends up in a mental hospital, where he is subjected to the ramblings of fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). He tries to explain his mission to Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe); she doubts him, of course, but his ability to predict future events and seemingly hop around in time eventually convince her that he might be telling that truth, and that they must try to stop the oncoming plague.
The screenplay, by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) and his wife Janet Peoples (inspired by Chris Marker’s La Jetée), is tight as a drum; compact and efficient, it doesn’t waste a word, unfolding with a nightmarish precision and unfaltering logic. It also manages to traffic in the fascinating concepts of time travel, and the rules and dangers therein, but to do so without breaking the film’s considerably fast pace—too often, time travel films stop cold in their tracks while a scientist or philosopher or some other egghead explains the butterfly theory to our hero, using small, easy words. As with all of the expositional information in 12 Monkeys, its notions about changing the future and the Möbius strip of time are imparted as we go, on a need-to-know basis.
But the writers also understand that cool ideas and a time-hopping storyline don’t amount to much more than narrative glitter if the audience doesn’t have compelling characters to latch on to. James Cole is a genuinely interesting creation—we know little about him (not even why he’s in that caged-up prison to begin with), but we care about him; Gilliam directs Bruce Willis in a way that both trades on our preconceived notions of his heroic screen personality, and subverts them. This film was a bold and potentially risky play for the actor (even following his first toe-dipping into the waters of independent cinema with Pulp Fiction the year before), but his gamble pays off—he’s seldom been better in a picture. Free of vanity and his usual bag of actor’s tricks, his performance is simultaneously controlled and unpredictable, and imbued with a startling sensitivity; watch the look on his face as he pleads with Dr. Railly to turn up her car radio (“Can you turn this up? Can you make this louder?”) and listens to a recording of “Blueberry Hill” with sheer pleasure.
Madeline Stowe is an actor I’ve never harbored much enthusiasm for (her interesting film work is pretty much encompassed by this film and Short Cuts), but she’s very good here, projecting her intellectual resistance, and ultimate yielding, to Cole’s story (seizing and playing the intermediate beats between). Here, again, the ingenious script shines through—watch the clever way it flip-flops their motivations, to a point near the end where she not only believes Cole, but is trying to talk him into believing all of the things that he had to convince her of. As fast-talking Jeffrey, Pitt comes on like gangbusters; 1995 was the year he set out to subvert the pretty-boy presence he’d established in A River Runs Through It and Legends of the Fall, first by chopping his golden locks and appearing in the Fincher’s neo-nihilist opus Seven, then slapping in some creepy contacts and seemingly channeling Dennis Hopper (specifically in Apocalypse Now) for his inspired, scene-stealing supporting role, which nabbed him an Oscar nomination.
As it hurtles toward its seemingly inevitable conclusion, Gilliam compliments the considerable narrative momentum with Hitchcock lifts (and an homage shot) before landing at his tremendously successful airport climax, which is so skillful, it even manages to pull off that old chestnut of the gradually-revealed flashback. This could very well be Gilliam’s finest work to date, better even than Brazil (which is magnificent, yes, but also overblown and overcooked and, sorry, a little too damned long). As with The Fisher King, Gilliam worked on 12 Monkeys as a hired gun, and it seems that when he works with material he hasn’t penned himself, he’s less likely to go overboard with his little indulgences. Which is not to say that it doesn’t still look and feel like a Gilliam picture; it’s visually arresting, with an ugly, cluttered future (reminiscent of Brazil), and he trots out Dutch angles, wide-angle lenses, herky-jerky camera moves, blown-out light levels, and busy, crowded frames en masse. But 12 Monkeys is all of a piece in a way that his films sometimes fail to be—with a strong cast and a whiz-bang screenplay to augment his distinctive visual style, this is looking and more and more like Gilliam’s masterpiece.
"12 Monkeys" makes its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, July 28th.