Back in the 1990s, three Hollywood heavyweights wrestled the horror genre away from the kiddies long enough to make a trilogy of terror that delighted anyone who enjoyed seeing monster movies that were adult in nature, literate in approach and steeped in atmosphere so pungent, you could almost cut it with a scalpel. Yet while Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 gem Bram Stoker's Dracula and Kenneth Branagh's underrated 1994 effort Mary Shelley's Frankenstein seemed to go hand in hand, Mike Nichols' entertaining 1994 hit Wolf never quite fit with the others, with its modern setting (the other two were period pieces) the primary reason.
The Wolfman, then, would on the surface appear to be the proper, belated third corner of that triangle, given its Victorian-era setting, its impeccable productions values and its distinguished cast. Unfortunately, that's hardly the case, as this disappointing film has little to do with those '90s winners but instead resembles those sacrilegious monster mashes from the 2000s: the daft Mummy movies and the unwatchable Van Helsing.
Then again, director Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III, Jumanji) is strictly a meat-and-potatoes type of filmmaker, not an ofttimes brilliant artist like Coppola, Nichols or Branagh, and it's safe to state that the demands of The Wolfman were simply out of his range. Of course, anybody working from the ragtag script by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self would have trouble keeping this thing on target, so it's not completely Johnston's fault.
Loosely based on the 1941 classic The Wolf Man (Curt Siodmak's excellent screenplay for that version gets a shout-out in the credits), this new take casts Benicio Del Toro in Lon Chaney Jr.'s iconic role of Lawrence Talbot, the British-born nobleman who returns to his family estate after spending most of his life in the United States. Here, Lawrence is presented as a successful stage actor who reluctantly travels home following the disappearance of his brother. The sibling turns up dead, his mutilated body suggesting that he was the victim of either a psychopath or a wild animal. Estranged from his aloof father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), Lawrence prefers the company of his late brother's fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). Promising her that he'll find the killer, he pieces together clues that lead him to a gypsy camp, an area that soon turns into a killing field as a ferocious creature shreds scores of people and wounds Lawrence in the process.
The gypsy fortune teller Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin) knows that Lawrence's injuries dictate that he will be turning into a werewolf himself whenever the full moon appears in the night sky. Lawrence isn't sure what to think, although he senses that everything is connected to his repressed memories involving his father and late mother, who apparently committed suicide when he was a child. As he attempts to understand what's happening to him, an inspector from Scotland Yard appears on the scene. But Aberline (Hugo Weaving) isn't just any ordinary lawman: He's the detective who recently wrapped up work on the Jack the Ripper case.
Considering that the Ripper case went unsolved, that doesn't exactly shine a favorable light on Aberline's skills, but I digress. What's important is that Weaving is the only principal cast member who manages to make a favorable impression. Although he's physically right for the role, Del Toro's line readings are unbearably stilted, and he brings none of the playfulness that Chaney contributed in his rendition. In short, he's a brooding bore. Fresh from triumphing as the title character in The Young Victoria, Blunt is alarmingly one-note, hampered by a sketchy part that allows her to do little more than pout and fret. As for Hopkins, he's clearly indifferent to the whole project, and one suspects his eyes kept darting back and forth between the dopey script in one hand and the hefty paycheck in the other as he mulled over whether to accept the part.
The makeup design by Rick Baker is excellent, although the transformation scenes aren't nearly as thrilling as the pivotal one in 1981's An American Werewolf in London (for which Baker won the first of his six Oscars). Yet what sinks the film on the technical side is the abundance of CGI effects; these simply come off as (no pun intended) overkill, with Johnston pouring on the gore in an effort to disguise the fact that the picture contains nothing in the way of genuine suspense or scares. Johnston's heavy use of cheap "gotcha!" moments (i.e. when the setting is quiet and then something suddenly LEAPS! into the frame or DASHES! across the screen) likewise points to his inability to coax any authentic reactions out of audience members, who will probably be too busy tittering at the risible dialogue anyway to concentrate on much else. As for the epic battle pitting werewolf versus werewolf -- well, let's just say it couldn't be any less menacing had the filmmakers elected to pit Pekingese against Poodle.