Big-budget Wolfman is more bark than bite

by Mark Burger

Big-budget Wolfman is more bark than bite

The longawaited, long-delayed and infinitely disappointing new version of Universal’s The Wolfman is the sort of no-brainer that gets bogged down by its bigness. Think of it as a big, bad Wolf — although not without its intermittent attributes.

Following the basic storyline of Universal’s 1941 classic The Wolf Man, with that film’s screenwriter Curt Siodmak duly recognized in the credits, the new-fangled (and new-fanged) version of the tale sees Benicio Del Toro in the role of Lawrence Talbot, prodigal son of Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins).

In case the “prodigal son” metaphor is missed by inattentive viewers, it’s referred to numerous times during the film.

Having carved out a thriving career as a stage actor, Lawrence has returned to his family’s ancestral home on the foggy English moors following the mysterious death of his brother Ben (Simon Merrells), disrespectfully disemboweled during a nocturnal encounter with a strange and savage beast.

In short order, Lawrence is himself attacked and bitten by the creature, and before too long is starting to exhibit sure signs of full-moon madness himself. This complicates his burgeoning relationship with Ben’s fiancee (Emily Blunt), ratchets up the tension between him and his father, and earns him the suspicion of one Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving), the top cop sent from Scotland Yard whose ego is still bruised from failing to solve the Ripper murders a few years before. (Had The Wolfman been set before the time of Jack the Ripper, it might have made for a neat twist at the end. Obviously, the writers thought otherwise.)

Joe Johnston, who assumed the directorial reins when original helmer Mark Romanek departed during the latter stages of pre-production, does his best to inject some energy into the proceedings. It may be overblown and over-produced — frequently to the detriment of the overall story — but The Wolf Man at least looks spectacular, and when the monster is onscreen, all is forgiven. More often than not, however, the film is a succession of build-ups to the monster’s appearance.

Makeup master Rick Baker, who won the first Academy Award for makeup effects nearly 30 years ago with An American Werewolf in London, again takes a stab at the manto-wolf transformation. Baker, happily, doesn’t repeat the same techniques yet still achieves an effect that is impressive and intense.

Less effective is the storytelling, which begins to collapse in the film’s protracted second half. In between scenes of torch- wielding viewers and characters running to and fro (sometimes halfway across England, it seems) are long, drawnout stretches of exposition that are distracting and, for the most part, unnecessary.

It’s not entirely fair to compare the new film to the original, even after nearly 70 years, but there’s no question that the original, for all its economy and datedness, was tight and taut, with hardly a wasted moment. The new Wolfman kills time between kills, as it were. For all of the visual accoutrements, the center of the film is hollow.

Del Toro (inspired casting) and Blunt attempt to mine some humanity from a storyline that becomes increasingly less concerned about such niceties. On the other end of the scale, Hopkins shambles and shuffles through his role as the dissipated Sir John with grizzled indulgence, recalling the loony patriarch he played in Legends of the Fall (1994). Still, as befits a pro — and a Knight of the Realm, to boot — he does his level best to keep things moving, as does Weaving, whose brooding intensity as the dogged inspector shines through, although not enough to make him an interesting or sympathetic character — a problem that permeates The Wolf Man throughout. Good actors, cardboard characters. Rip their throats out or not, it’s hard to care one way or the other.

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