Gore Verbinski’s 1997 directorial debut Mouse Hunt begins with a quote by fictional string factory magnate Rudolf Smuntz: “A world without string is chaos.” In the opening scene that follows, Rudolf is carried in a casket down cathedral stairs with his two sons, Ernie (Nathan Lane) and Lars (Lee Evans), leading the pack. In a bit that sets the course for the film’s giddy screwball dialogue and slapstick gymnastics, the two brothers inanely argue about whether Lars’ suit technically qualifies as grey. The squabble leads to the casket’s handle becoming untethered as it escapes the grip of its transporters, sending the deceased’s container pummeling down the stairs, crashing into the hearse, flipping the casket and sending the corpse yards into the air. In a spinning motion, Rudolf’s lifeless body travels forward and downward, effortlessly landing itself in an open sewer.

Chaos. But yet, contrary to the quote that precedes this scene, there’s string threaded through every shot. In Mouse Hunt, Verbinski gives us careful and calculated turmoil that shines a light on exactly the career he would eventually pursue. The director has proven his penchant for organized aesthetic anarchy time and again with blockbuster franchises (the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films), one-off tentpoles (The Lone Ranger), and the occasional dabble in horror (The Ring, A Cure for Wellness), and it’s all on full display in his fun, well-assembled debut.

From the gothic palettes of the film’s central house to the silly hijinks executed by a crafty rodent and the bumbling brothers trying to kill it, one can easily discern the type of filmmaker Verbinski would become. He’s an artist who appears fully infatuated with the look and feel of the worlds he creates, and through that passion and commitment comes a dedication to the established world’s rules. If the laws of gravity must be defied, so be it, because Verbinski is never focused on finding the easy way out of an action sequence. His storyboards and eventual shots and cuts are like elements of a cinematic Rube Goldberg machine; you can sense the fun he’s having in trying to make the impossible appear on screen.

And as viewers, we just reap the benefits. What a delight Mouse Hunt is as it slowly obliterates an antique home in endlessly inventive ways, as well as extinguishing the sanity of Ernie and Lars, presenting new methods for madness with each subsequent setup and destruction. It’s got the energy of a Saturday morning cartoon and a Chaplin film when it comes to sheer knockabout humor, from physical pratfalls to other gleeful blunders, and Verbinski keeps the pace going throughout. And when it comes to pure structure, whether it be individual stunts or entire sequences, there’s a Keaton-esque attention to detail that distinguishes Mouse Hunt as something far beyond typical family fare.

It’s interesting to imagine what Verbinski would’ve done with this storyline later in his career, as the one thing lacking in his debut film is that it pushes the limits but never quite goes as hard as his later films do. But overall, it’s a wily debut that showcases the early glimmer of one of our most noteworthy American action filmmakers.

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