Stuart Gordon is, of course, best-known for his basement-budget adaptations of Lovecraft, but he’s never confined himself solely to the horror film; witness the sci-fi action flick Fortress, or his work in the kids’-film genre (which, while not extensive, does comprise a surprising amount of his production time). Thus, King of the Ants is not as much of a surprise as it would first seem. Unlike most of his previous forays into non-horror, though, King of the Ants delivers in spades.
Sean Crawley (Chris McKenna, previously seen in the TV series Opposite Sex) is a rootless guy who’s willing to do just about anything to make a buck. While painting a house one day, he meets an electrician named Duke (Cheers’ George Wendt). Duke works for a guy named Ray Matthews (Daniel Baldwin). Matthews needs a guy watched. Crawley has a dumb fantasy about being a private eye. Everyone’s happy, until Matthews reveals to Crawley while drunk one night that the guy he’s having followed he actually wants dead. From there, things get weird.
Based on a novel by Charles Higson, King of the Ants is in most respects your standard action-revenge fare. (Had it gotten wide release, its timing would have been perfect; Blake Crouch’s book Desert Places came out around the same time, and the two have a good deal in common.) Where it rises above is in its characters. Much has been made of Sean’s move from being a basically likable drifter into being a basically likable killer, and it probably says more about me than about the movie that I didn’t see it as being all that much a stretch (thus, my being impressed comes from different areas); if you’re the kind of person who thinks such a transformation would be something to see, by all means, rent this. More surprising, to me, was the detail to be found in even the minor characters. One expects development from Ray and Duke, but in most action flicks, the other henchmen who form Ray’s band of criminals would just be there as window dressing. Not so here; the other two guys on the team (capably played by Vernon Wells, the villain in Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando, and Lionel Mark Smith, recently seen in State and Main, Magnolia, and Life Among the Cannibals) are fully-fleshed minor players. One assumes they were even more fleshed out in the novel, but that the adaptation didn’t jettison their characters altogether is one of the things that makes this such a fine film.