FEBRUARY 8, 2010
Some movies start off great and fizzle out by the end. Others get off to a rocky start steadily improve and build to a kick-ass finale. Universal’s big budget, long in production update of The Wolfman is that rarest of films - one where the middle is the best part. If you come in late and leave early, you will be treated to the “bigger and better” Wolfman movie you’ve probably wanted to see since you became aware of the character, but some insulting editing work and a truly boneheaded 3rd act “twist” keeps the film from being a great whole - it’s a more like a pretty good mess.
Things are troubled literally right from the start; after a far-too-quick scene of “a” Wolfman (not THE Wolfman) chasing someone, we get a montage that is laughably obvious in its attempt to condense what was probably 15-20 minutes worth of movie into a couple minutes in order to get to the action quicker. Amongst other things, this denies Larry Talbot/Benicio Del Toro a real iconic introduction - we first see him in a Hamlet costume from about 50 feet away, and then in a quick shot riding in a coach while we listen to a voiceover summing up all of the plot points that were originally presented in full scenes. The rushed editing and over-use of voice-over in these scenes distracted me to the point where I actually began to get confused on certain story points, and it’s a while before I was able to really focus on the film again.
See, here’s the thing that I think a lot of worried producers never seem to get - there’s no such thing as a film “dragging” before the first real action beat even occurs. I know that they wanted to get to the first transformation sooner, but no one would have minded waiting another 10 minutes to get there, especially if that meant we got to know/care about the guy transforming (I want to know “whose ass it was and why it was farting!”, so to speak). It’s once the film kicks into Wolfman mode that they need to worry about keeping the pace exciting, but before that point, any intelligent audience member should appreciate the anticipation.
Anyway, once Larry is bitten things improve. There are a number of great little callbacks, like the townspeople bringing the blacksmith their silver possessions (mirror frames and such) so that they can be melted for bullets, and pretty much any scene with Hugo Weaving as Abberline (one of two major characters introduced in this version) delivers on the film’s initial promise. He believes Larry might be the murderer right from the start, and even hints that he suspects Larry was involved with the Jack the Ripper murders that he investigated a few years before (it is a curiously under-explored possibility that Jack the Ripper was a werewolf, if you ask me). There’s also a terrific attack on the gypsy camp with lots of kills and above-average jump scares*, including a funny bit where Rick Baker himself is quickly dispatched by the rampaging wolf (not “Bela” this time around). However, the sequence lacks any real buildup, and also seems a victim of clumsy re-editing (where does that bear go?).
The other new character is Dr. Hoenneger, who is the main focus of the film’s best section (which is also the most original). He is a shrink determined to prove that Larry is just crazy, and of course, he is dead wrong. The transformation sequence in this section is top notch, and even a bit humorous (it leads to a very AWIL-esque rampage through London, as a matter of fact), and the scenes of Lawrence being shocked and prodded (trying to get the beast to appear, I assume) are pretty much the only time in the movie where we are allowed to feel any actual sympathy for the character. For like 15-20 minutes straight, I was fully engaged and really digging the movie, instead of constantly going back and forth between rolling my eyes and having fun.
(The next paragraph has SPOILERS!)
Unfortunately it’s right about this time that the script’s biggest blunder comes into play. Because it’s a modern monster movie, someone decided we needed to have a big Wolf vs. Wolf fight at the end of the film, and to do that we need a human villain, who is none other than Anthony Hopkins’ character, who plays Larry’s dad. The fight itself is fine, and damned if CGI Wolf Hopkins isn’t a bit creepy (his face is dead on). But who the hell wants to watch a guy smack around his dad? The original film worked as a light metaphor on the fear of Nazi takeover - one losing their identity and such. This one works as a metaphor for whiny emo kids who are pissed at their fathers. Worse, the loving father-son relationship was one of the best things about the original, and while I am not one to say a film should copy its predecessor (indeed, other than this, the things I liked most about this version were different/new), I don’t think going the complete opposite direction is a sound choice. And whether it’s by design or more editing, the two have zero chemistry as father and son (even estranged ones), so the “story behind the fight” doesn’t really resonate anyway. And why the fuck would anyone want to risk being compared to the 2003 version of Hulk (itself a film ruined by its own brain-dead finale that pitted father against son)?
Another issue is the half-baked romance between Larry and Gwen. Again, maybe there was never any sort of development between the two, or it was lost in the race to get to the action, but the two have exactly ONE scene together before they’re in full blown “doomed romance” mode. And she was his brother’s fiancé, so it just makes Larry come off as kind of a dick (or her as a slut), as opposed to the genuine romance the two characters shared in the original. Though I guess they at least made their cutesy first “date” less creepy, instead of spying on her through a telescope like in the 1941 film, Larry teaches her how to skip stones. And then bam! She loves him. Single men - grab some rocks and hit up your local lakes!
I was also underwhelmed by Danny Elfman’s score, but that’s nothing new. The guy’s been phoning it in for years now, so I wasn’t really expecting much from this one, especially when it, like everything else in the movie, was compromised (he was replaced with Paul Haslinger, and then Haslinger’s score was tossed out and Elfman was brought in to do his best to work his original score into the new edit). Some of it is OK - the cue near the end of the film is actually quite nice, but it’s also largely copied from John Williams’ A.I. score. I think we are long past the time where seeing his name on the credits can be considered a “plus” for the film. Luckily the sound editing is top notch - particularly in the transformation scenes, where you can hear every bone snap and crack as Talbot changes.
Really though, I think the main problem is the choice of director. Granted, Johnston wasn’t put in the best position (brought in last minute to shoot the film so that they could make their release date, which they ended up missing several times anyway), but all you have to do is look at his filmography and you can bet that even if he was given time it wouldn’t have been much different, because it’s ultimately a LOT like all of his others - passable entertainment, but always missing that je ne sais quoi that makes them great. Jurassic Park III, Jumanji, Hidalgo... all movies that aren’t bad enough to be hated, but not good enough to live on in our memories (I actually completely forgot about Hidalgo until I double-checked his IMDb). He got his start doing FX for Spielberg and Lucas, and has been able to translate that into a prolific but hardly enviable career as a director, but he’s the last guy I would ever think of as the ideal guy to take on a project. Ironically, one of his better films is October Sky, which is nearly effects/spectacle free (and based on a true story to boot). Maybe he should stick to quieter stuff, and leave big budget tentpole fare to those who can successfully combine an actual vision with the needs of a studio. I weep at the missed possibility of handing The Wolfman to someone like Guillermo Del Toro or Sam Raimi. Hell, even M. Night Shyamalan would have at least turned in something unique. Instead, we got a guy who, by his own admission, got the job because he could "do it on time and on budget".
I don’t do grades, but if I did I’d probably give the film a C+, but that could improve to a B-/B when the inevitable “director’s cut” hits DVD. With some actual character development at the beginning of the film, it could at least be more interesting/tragic, and based on the trailers, it seems Weaving (again, the best thing about the film) had more to do originally as well. But it would still suffer from some ill-advised story turns and the un-changeable fact that it was ultimately directed by a guy who never should have been trusted to revive one of the all time best movie monsters. Moral of the story - hire a director first, not last.
What say you?
P.S. I picked up the novelization by Jonathan Maberry (whose novel "Patient Zero" is fucking incredible - any zombie fan should check it out post haste), which retains much of what was edited from the early parts of the film, and even without the visuals, is actually more satisfying - making this the rare movie where you can say "The book is better" when it wasn't even based on a book in the first place (the novel was adapted from the film's script). I've linked it below in case you're interested.
*There was a guy next to me who jumped at LEAST ten times during the film. His girlfriend kept laughing at him. On the other side of me was my wife, who is pretty easy to scare and yet only jumped 3-4 times. So either she’s getting soft, or the movie is somehow scarier to dudes than girls.