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Friday, February 12, 2010

The Wolfman (**1/2)



I had my joke all ready to go even before I saw The Wolfman. And here it is: The Wolfman would have been better if it was three minutes long, was called She-Wolf, and starred Shakira.  Yeah, I know, the joke's only okay. It's the same with The Wolfman; it's only okay. (The Shakira video, on the other hand, is superb. I could watch that all day.)

In this modern age where girls think werewolves are sexy because they wear denim shorts and go shirtless to show off their eight pack abs, I kind of admire Universal's decision to go retro in re-making The Wolfman.  This is not a "re-imagining" or a "reboot" or even ironic; this is a dead-serious old-timey-style redo of the Lon Chaney horror classic.

Set in 1891 Victorian England, The Wolfman is positively bursting with blood, viscera, and severed limbs; souped up with CGI special effects, but still relying on the schlocky effect of men in furry wolf suits for the close ups. There were certainly moments where the Wolfman dancing to Michael Jackson's Thriller would have brought the house down.

Benicio Del Toro is the Wolfman. His father is Anthony Hopkins, a wealthy big game hunter who makes no effort in hiding how completely insane he is living in his enormous, cobwebbed gothic manor in Blackmoor, England.  Del Toro, a famous but mopey stage actor (Hamlet is directly referenced) long absent from Blackmoor, is summoned home after his brother is killed by the Wolfman. That's right, there's two. There has to be; otherwise, how else would Del Toro get bitten and become a Wolfman himself?

So who is the other Wolfman? It's not hard to guess, and I rather enjoyed the complicated backstory the screenwriters provided for how the Latino Del Toro could be old Englishman Hopkins' son, how the disease of "lycanthropy" came to Blackmoor, and how Del Toro's family is intimately involved and entirely to blame for these terrible events. There's a generally satisfying explanation for everything and Hopkins monologues it all while chomping the scenery with feral glee.

There are some amusing homages to other Universal classic horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein. I also enjoyed Hopkins having a Sikh manservant; the actor seemed to have borrowed Captain Nemo's costume from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Hugo Weaving appears as Inspector Abberline, the very same character Johnny Depp portrayed in From Hell, complete with dialogue reference to "that Ripper case" three years prior. Considering how Weaving's dealings with the Wolfman turn out, Abberline must regret pursuing the Wolfman instead of tracking down his favorite prostitute Heather Graham and living with her on the coast with Prince Albert's bastard son.

I didn't enjoy the sleepytime pace of the first act of the movie, which was filled with all of the somber characters doling out somber exposition.  Midway through, after Del Toro's first transformation and killing rampage, The Wolfman's pace picks up and the movie goes for broke, complete with Del Toro's Wolfman running amok on the streets and rooftops of London. The finale is a Wolfman vs. Wolfman showdown in the fiery confines of Hopkins' manor. (It was nice of Wolfman number two to rip its shirt off for the fight so that the audience could tell the Wolfmen apart.)

There has to be a woman in these types of stories and that's Emily Blunt, who plays Del Toro's brother's fiance. Blunt and Del Toro engage in a romantic subplot that neither the actors nor the movie quite buy into. Poor Blunt spends the entire movie in a perpetual state of mourning; perhaps because Universal wouldn't release her from her contract to do The Wolfman and instead the sought-after role of Black Widow in Iron Man 2 went to Scarlett Johansson. (There's even a meta line Blunt delivers: "I can't seem to escape this place.") Blunt is rewarded with the ultimate act of heroism in The Wolfman and gets to put the dog down in the end, so that's nice.

After Del Toro's first Wolfman killing spree, he is quickly captured and sentenced to an insane asylum. The Sigmund Freud-esque doctor then presents Del Toro to his colleagues as a delusional who thinks he's a werewolf.  This scene makes no sense whatsoever. Weaving is in attendance and he already knows Del Toro is the Wolfman, but he stands by passively and says nothing as Del Toro transforms and then goes on to rip apart the room full of doctors.  Weaving let Del Toro loose on London for no good reason when he knew better.

Once he's done taking in the sights of London, Del Toro's Wolfman seeks refuge by the shore near the Tower Bridge and drinks from the Thames. The disgusting, putrid, filth-infested waters of the Thames.  Forget silver bullets, Del Toro should have died from dysentery or any number of other diseases.

Whether or not Blunt or anyone ever notifies Del Toro's theatre company in New York of what happened to their star performer will perhaps be answered if there's a Wolfman 2.