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‘The Deceivers’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 09, 1988

"The Deceivers" is an adventure epic with a pretty measly sense of adventure.

Adapted by Michael Hirst from the novel by John Masters, the film is set in India at the early part of the 19th century. It exposes us to the members of a secret cult of the Hindu goddess Kali called the Thuggees, known as Deceivers, who are thought to be responsible for the brutal murder of more than 2 million people, and whose evildoings come to the attention of William Savage (Pierce Brosnan), a collection officer for the British East India Co..

The Thugs (pronounced "Tugs") are a great subject for the movies: They're impassioned killers who strangle their subjects with a scarf, whipping the weighted end around the victim's neck, then tightening it until the final crack! When Savage comes upon a mass grave containing Thuggee victims, he tries to alert his superiors in the company to their existence, but instead, his bosses relieve him of his position, forcing him to disguise himself as a Deceiver to expose the cult and prove his story true.

A lot of what director Nicholas Meyer shows us is either painfully flat or laughable. When Brosnan is preparing to go underground, his wife surprises him as he is applying his makeup and the expression on his face is like that of a child caught trying on mommy's lipstick. And the scenes in which Savage partakes of the sacred sugar cube of Kali and falls under her sway have neither atmosphere nor suspense. (The same is true of the hallucination scenes, which give the impression that to be under the spell of Kali is a bit like eating too much pie and staying up way past midnight.)

Meyer isn't a bad director, just serviceable. He gave an ironic edge to the second (and best) "Star Trek" film, but he's in a straight-faced mood here. The movie is basically a Merchant Ivory production, and the filmmakers seem to want the picture to tread the same ground as "A Passage to India." But the decision to treat the story as if it were a revelatory metaphor for the imperial enslavement of India by the British, or an examination of an Englishman engulfed by the powerful, mysterious East, dulls our interest.

There are a few patches of exotic fun, like the opening murder scene, and there's a seductive campfire dance by a young boy that's creepy enough to send chills (though perhaps inadvertently). But for the most part all we react to is the squandering of a good idea. The costuming makes even the Indian actors, including Shashi Kapoor and, as Savage's Deceiver guide, Saeed Jaffrey, look like impostors. As for Brosnan, he wears some of the most ludicrous-looking hats ever seen on screen. And they're probably authentic -- in which case, Kali be praised.

The Deceivers, at the Key, is rated PG-13 and contains some mild nudity and violence.

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