(by Dustin Putman
As so often seems to happen with big-budget, studio-bred Hollywood moviemaking, too many cooks in the kitchen have ruined what probably once started with the purest of intentions. Before several directors were shuffled in and out, multiple crew members quit, reshoots took place, release dates were scheduled and canceled, the composer was replaced before getting invited back at the last minute, and a war over final cut was waged, "The Wolfman" was intended as a loving tribute to the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s and '40s, most notably 1941's original "The Wolf Man" starring Lon Chaney. As a loose remake, this update sports a prestigious cast and the kind of production design, art direction, cinematography, and costuming every bit as sumptuous as an $85-million budget can buy. What it lacks is not only a beating heart, but a beating anything. If the viewer isn't given the chance to care about what is happening on the screen, then all of a film's technical attributes are rendered as nothing more than empty-shelled ornaments. Article continues below
When his brother Ben (Simon Merrells) goes missing and is later found dead, stage actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) drops everything and returns to his brooding hometown of Blackmoor, England, circa 1891. Staying at his family's estate and reconnecting with estranged father John (Anthony Hopkins), Lawrence vows not to leave until he finds out who killed his brother. When an animal attack near a gypsy camp leaves Lawrence seriously wounded, his bite mark quickly heals while the true nature of what he has become threatens to reveal itself with the approaching full moon. As Ben's fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) draws closer to Lawrence, his own discoveries of multiple family secrets involving late mother Solana (Cristina Contes) and shady father John come to fruition.
"The Wolfman" is more of a chore to sit through than a thrilling horror romp. Glacial in tone, sluggish in pace, and lifeless in performance, the film is a dreary, uninteresting dullard in desperate need of some energy. Director Joe Johnston (2004's "Hidalgo") has the look of the picture down pat, full of late-19th century views of England, atmospheric landscapes both rural and urban, and a pall of overcast doom weighing down on the characters, but he exudes no passion for the project otherwise. Meanwhile, screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker (1999's "Sleepy Hollow") and David Self (2002's "Road to Perdition") are left out in the cold by a finished project mutilated through post-production tinkering. If there once was any depth at all to the story, the people involved, or the heightened emotional context they find themselves in, all of the above have been scrubbed down to barely one dimension in the journey to screen.
When the novelty of the picture's alluring aesthetics wear off, the act of watching it grows more and more trying by the minute. The actors speak mostly in whispers, frowns painted on their dour faces. When they aren't talking, they are wandering around for monotonously long periods of time down darkened corridors. The werewolf action and carnage, when it finally arrives, is anticlimactic, too draped in darkness to ever get a good look. The violence is understated and forgettable, as boring as the rest of it because the victims are almost always nameless extras whom the viewer hasn't properly met. Why should we care about them, then? As for Lawrence's initial transformation—a centerpiece of any respectable lycanthropic yarn—it leaves one merely aloof by the choice to go with CGI that doesn't come close to approaching the realism, ingenuity and fright of makeup artist Rick Baker's masterful practical effects in 1981's "The Howling" and 1982's "An American Werewolf in London." Those earlier movies—nearly thirty years old now, mind you—evoke specific feelings of fear, tension and dread in the audience that "The Wolfman" completely neglects.
The cast is a good one, but the performances don't hold such close scrutiny. Bar none, Benicio Del Toro (2007's "Things We Lost in the Fire"), as Lawrence Talbot; Anthony Hopkins (2007's "Fracture"), as Sir John Talbot; Emily Blunt (2009's "Sunshine Cleaning"), as Gwen Cunliffe, and a heinously wasted Hugo Weaving (2005's "V for Vendetta"), as Scotland Yard investigator Abberline, appear as if they are on the verge of nodding off during their scenes. Del Toro shows little emotion as Lawrence seemingly takes his new wolfy side in stride. Blunt tries her hardest—she sneaks in one nice scene where Lawrence teaches her how to skip stones in the pond—but struggles with an underwritten role that demands she do a lot of stuff for the sole reason that the script demands it, logic be damned. As for Hopkins, he plays patriarch John Talbot as such an unfeeling person from the start (he barely bats an eyelash at his son's death) that he might as well be wearing a neon necklace spelling out the word "suspicious."
A lavish production unworthy of its bargain-basement treatment, "The Wolfman" fails to scare, to raise one's apprehension, to generate goosebumps, or, quite frankly, to keep the viewer involved in the onscreen goings-on. Distinctly impersonal, the film does not work as supernatural horror, as cursed romance, or as tragedy. There is no pathos to be had because there are no characters intimately drawn enough to be capable of such a thing. Even 2005's troubled "Cursed," with that still-great, still-frightening cat-and-mouse parking garage set-piece between werewolf and Mya, was several steps above this ineffectual dud. When all is said and done, "The Wolfman" burns a lot of money on what amounts to a toothless rendering of a classic tale.