Although "Instinct" is strictly a Hollywood formula picture, it's such an efficiently executed one, built around two such outstanding actors, that for the most part you won't mind. On its most obvious level, "Instinct" jams the plots of "Silence of the Lambs" and "Gorillas in the Mist" into the mixmaster, producing a thriller about the animal nature of human beings. More fundamentally, it's a buddy film akin to "The Shawshank Redemption," a male-male romance in which two seemingly opposed personalities form an emotional bond, each learning lessons from the other about the nature of freedom. By the second time director Jon Turteltaub rips off that trademark "Shawshank" shot -- the one where a man stands in a rainstorm with his arms spread wide to symbolize his personal liberation -- this parallel has worn out its welcome and "Instinct" has run out of steam.
Although Anthony Hopkins understandably gets top billing here, his role as Dr. Ethan Powell, a leading anthropologist who disappeared into the Rwandan jungle for two years to study gorillas before resurfacing and killing two park rangers, is surprisingly understated. Powell is no Hannibal Lecter -- he's a wounded intellectual with a powerful loathing for himself and for human civilization, somewhere between Dian Fossey and Ted Kaczynski. The real star of "Instinct" is Cuba Gooding Jr. as Dr. Theo Caulder, the ambitious young psychiatrist assigned to analyze Powell, who has refused to speak since being returned to U.S. custody. Gooding is an exceptionally precise, witty and physical actor who is always a delight to watch, even if Caulder sometimes seems awfully close to the character Gooding plays in those Pepsi One commercials -- a cocksure, tight-assed buppie in a sharp suit.
Turteltaub, whose previous films include "While You Were Sleeping" and "Cool Runnings" (the immortal Jamaican-bobsled-team epic) is not what you'd call a subtle director, and the early going in Gerald Di Pego's script, based on the novel "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn, is full of leaden aphorisms and implausibilities. Powell tries to escape from his captors at the Miami airport in a third-rate action sequence; it's embarrassing to watch an actor of Hopkins' credentials lumbering through the airport throngs, à la O.J. Simpson's now-infamous Hertz commercial. Caulder's boss (Donald Sutherland, in another of his peripheral, avuncular roles) is given to generic musings like "He lived with the animals, he becomes one of them. How does that happen?" Even Gooding, with as much sobriety as he can muster, must utter such lines as "He can give me a look at man in his primitive state -- ungoverned man."
Things improve greatly once Caulder and Powell come face to face behind the walls of Harmony Bay, an overcrowded, ironically named prison full of hopeless thugs and drooling psychopaths. It's run by a coterie of sadistic guards and a good-ol'-boy warden (John Aylward, the hospital chief of staff on TV's "ER") who drawls, "This is Harmony Bay, Dr. Caulder. It was out of date 30 years ago." These are hackneyed elements drawn from dozens of prison and asylum films, but Turteltaub effectively builds an atmosphere of deepening claustrophobia from them, and the unsettling environment begins to eat away at Caulder's hyper-confident professional demeanor. Hopkins and Gooding's scenes together crackle with intensity and immanent violence; as Caulder draws Powell into philosophical conversation, he realizes that communicating with his celebrity patient means surrendering all control over their relationship.
As Caulder gradually extracts Powell's story of his years in the rain forest, living as an adopted member of a gorilla band, it's no surprise to learn that the real villains are not the great apes, but the primate species who wear clothes and carry guns. The film's African flashbacks include some footage of real gorillas and some animatronic creations by wizard Stan Winston, but the overall effect is highly convincing, and the fate of the gorillas is heartbreakingly realistic. (This is most definitely not a film for young children.) Powell says, of life with the apes, "I felt as if I was coming back to something I had lost a long time ago," but adds that his transformation was not that of a man becoming an animal, but a man becoming human. "I lived as a man living with animals," he says. "I lived as humans lived 10,000 years ago."
The semi-mystical notion that we might be able to slip the tyrannical bonds of civilization and rediscover some renewed harmony with nature is an integral part of modern life, and its allure remains so strong that even a simplistic narrative like "Instinct" can gain tremendous power from it. When Caulder takes Powell's lesson to heart and leads a symbolic rebellion among the brutalized psychiatric patients at Harmony Bay, the film finds its finest hour. Even that is borrowed from other movies (most notably "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"), but it is memorable nonetheless. For all the fine, even brilliant work by Hopkins and Gooding, "Instinct" finally isn't quite good enough to capitalize on the force of its own ideas. Beyond maybe taking a vacation, getting a girlfriend and standing next to his BMW in the rain listening to Danny Elfman's syrupy score, it's not too clear what Caulder's "liberation" will be like. And all the contradictions of Powell's personality are swept aside in an impossibly happy ending that focus groups must have loved.
Still, there are things in "Instinct" you'll remember a long time, and the pairing of these high-octane yet totally different actors is precisely the kind of thing Hollywood movies do best. The racial difference between Caulder and Powell is never mentioned -- and I'm not saying it should have been -- but it lends the film an intriguing undertow when the white man from Africa addresses his black shrink as "Bwana" or calls him an idiot in Swahili. A fine supporting cast includes the likable Maura Tierney as Powell's daughter, who hovers on the fringes of the story without ever becoming important to it, and George Dzundza as a harried, beaten prison shrink whom Caulder finally sparks into life. "Instinct" is a classic Hollywood "if" picture -- if you have nothing better to do tonight, it's a fine choice; and if it hadn't been studio-produced half to death, it could really have been terrific.