Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Wolfman (2010)

Director: Joe Johnston

It’s very hard to fuck up a werewolf movie. Even in these days of CGI that has forever hampered the greatest thing about the werewolf movie, which are the transformation scenes, ever since An American Werewolf in Paris where rather than a werewolf looking like a guy in a great suit and make-up now you have a werewolf that looks like a big piece of blurry poo. Aside from that technological hurdle, the rest is quite simple: protagonist arrives in strange place, protagonist avoids advice of gypsies and townfolk, protagonist is bitten by mysterious creature, protagonist’s senses improve dramatically, protagonist turns into werewolf and rips a few faces off, protagonist-turned-werewolf is killed by silver bullet, etc. The Wolfman has all of those elements, but assembles them into a moribund, entertainment dead zone as if it’s a Michael Haneke art-house take on the genre, but no, it’s a Universal Pictures mainstream Hollywood movie that makes Teen Wolf Too look like the better werewolf movie.

So, Benicio Del Toro stars as Lawrence Talbot, a touring actor who is informed in a letter that the brother that he never really knew was killed by a mysterious assailant lurking in the moors of Blackmoor, England. Note: Benicio is saddled with an awful haircut that makes him look like Jerry Lewis in the 1960s. Anyway, arriving at the gothic estate, Benicio is confronted by an evil looking hound that growls at him and then a grizzly Anthony Hopkins brandishing a shotgun. “Hello father,” Benicio says. Sitting next to me in the cinema, my friend Peewee remarked, “That’s to establish that Anthony Hopkins is his father.” How does that work? Oh, Hopkins’ dead wife, dead mother to Benicio, is revealed in a painting and then some flashbacks to be a Spanish senorita. Oh, okay, that makes sense. So, why is Benicio speaking with the American accent then? “When I discovered my dead mother, my father sent me to an asylum and then I was raised in the States by my Aunt who was living there,” Benicio explains to Emily Blunt, his dead brother’s shapely betrothed. Blunt was staying at the Talbot mansion but stays for the funeral, which they all attend, and then she has to leave after the funeral, and then she returns anyway, and then yada yada. The movie continues on like this with every scene about who someone is, what they are doing there and where they are going. When touring England, The Wolfman always likes to stay in Exposition City. As Peewee remarked twenty minutes in, “When do you think the film will start?”

The film seems to start when Benicio investigates a Gypsy camp and some ornery townfolk rock up to kill a bear they think is eating people on the moors and then the Wolfman attacks, shredding out entrails like spaghetti and tearing off limbs like they were breadsticks. Highlight includes a scene where a bobby policeman has his hand ripped off and screams in shock-horror at the latex stump he is left with. Bada Bing, Bada Boom, Benicio is bitten by the creature and lies in bed dreaming of wolf-boys under his bed. Couple of days later, Benicio is feeling better, his wound is healing amazingly, and he is starting to sniff around Emily Blunt more and more like some kind of... animal? They even share some airless “flirtation” down by the lake when he teaches her how to skip a stone in the great tradition of all Victorian romances. Then some more ornery townfolk rock up at Talbot mansion, which Benicio hears with his super wolf ears, and they try to take away Benicio because of his regenerative powers. Anthony Hopkins rocks up again with a shotgun, but this time with an Irish accent (!), and he says that his Indian manservant Singh (Art Malik!) has a repeating rifle trained on them all from the roof. The townsfolk leave. Then Hopkins remarks to Benicio, “I will tell Singh this when gets back from town. You’re not the only actor in the family!” No shit. You’re the man now, Dog! Especially when you - as in Sir Anthony Hopkins - seems to be playing a different character in each scene! So random.

Speaking of acting, Hugo Weaving arrives as Mr. Smith – sorry – Inspector Abberline, the detective on the case who basically takes everyone to Acting School with his purred delivery that at least provides some life into all the glum performances on the screen: “Rrrrules are what keeps us from descending into a dog eat dog world.” Rules also hamper acting, particularly when it comes to Hopkins who is eventually revealed to be the real Wolfman even though Benicio is also turning into a Wolfman and killing townfolk. So, it’s basically like Teen Wolf but with less basketball. Suddenly Hopkins turns into the Hannibal Lecter of Wolfmen, appearing in his secret wolf lair cave that Benicio discovers and suddenly Hopkins is rocking the slicked back hair and leopard-skin coat look, providing a rambling monologue that is delivered very casually for its ghoulish subject matter. He says at one point about his dead wife, “Her death finished me. I was devastated... Oh well.” Later in the film when Benicio is captured and taken to London, Hopkins does it again when visits Benicio’s cell to reveal that, yes, it was he gored his own wife:

BENICIO: “You killed my mother!”
HOPKINS: “Yeah, I suppose I did.”

Shit happens in werewolf town. Pass me a brandy, my boy, and let’s start reading the new Dickens. One wonders if Hopkins was paid by the word or possibly by the shrug considering the care he gives to his performance. So, yeah, Benicio is imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, London, where he is water-boarded by some Nazi shrink and his giggling sidekick, all the while rambling like a lunatic and having surreal dreams that include some Emily Blunt side-boob and lots of wolfman imagery, y’know, like acting on stage with a severed head in your hand. Elephant Man: The Revenge strikes when Benicio is tied up and wheeled out in front of all these whiskered doctors chortling at the misguided idea that he is a werewolf until he turns into one, savagely kills a good deal of them, and then hits the streets to kill some more extras from Sweeney Todd. Seems werewolves don’t really need to eat human flesh for food anymore, preferring to act like a hairy Jack The Ripper. Now you might think that turn of the century London is a good place for a climax, but no, still more movie to get on with as all the characters return to Blackmoor for the finale. It’s basically as if the film was a palindrome with the first act replayed for the audience in reverse.

By this time Emily Blunt and Benicio are now madly in love after some lacklustre courting and she is looking through old Lycanthropy books, mainly looking at the pictures just like Tom Hanks in The Burbs rather than locating that section of the text that states “CURES.” Then she visits Geraldine Chaplin as a Gypsy but her main advice is something along the lines of “Fate is a curse” or some such nonsense and on reflection old gypsies are quite useless by this film’s representation of them. Anyway, Benicio kicks down the door of Talbot mansion and finds Hopkins playing a piano with bloody fingers, reciting some “Prodigal Son Has Returned Scripture” and looking a lot like he’s in a Miracle on 34th Street rather than The Wolfman. Benicio has the shotgun now and presses the trigger but no luck, Hopkins “took out the gunpowder from the shells years ago” because he had a time machine like Bill & Ted and knew this would happen. The full moon comes out for the third act and cut to Hopkins-Wolfman and Benicio-Wolfman having a UFC grudge match amidst an accidental fire blazing within the mansion interior, lots of back flips and high kicks, and then a flaming Hopkins-Wolfman is decapitated, his head rolling across the floor still breathing in a nice touch. Then there’s some boring love stuff where Emily Blunt keeps failing to shoot Benicio-Wolfman at the appropriate juncture, letting Hugo Weaving get bitten, and then she draws out the human side of Benicio for a moment before shooting him anyway with a silver bullet, but then he turns back into a human for some parting words of thanks, “Great job, kiddo.” Final shot is of the moon with Hugo Weaving now one of the savage beasts though I doubt there’d be any sequel to support his character's further adventures.

So there you have it, Hugo Weaving provides some subtle overacting and Anthony Hopkins provides some broad overacting. Emily Blunt is quite nice to look at alongside all the moody gothic establishing-shots that try to give Dracula and Sleepy Hollow a run for their money. Finally, Benicio Del Toro whose pet project this was is in the end quite miscast in the title role because (one) he is a glum absence when someone like Nicolas Cage was dearly needed and (two) he already looks like a wolf. To put it into perspective, I only saw The Wolfman at the cinemas because we were originally supposed to see Valentine’s Day as a bad joke for a friend. When that friend was waylaid, we saw The Wolfman instead. Once the lights went up on The Wolfman, the same thought occurred to all of my friends, “We should have seen Valentine’s Day instead.” The running time would have been shorter and the screen would have had more colour.
Then again, would it have had Anthony Hopkins serving up a big slice of acting ham?

"Make sure you get paid by the word when acting, my boy!"