As if it wasn't a basic enough idea to begin with, Universal's remake of their 1941 horror classic The Wolf Man sure had some troubles getting to the big screen. The project bounced from Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) to Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) and several others before landing on the desk of Joe Johnston, a reliable popcorn-maker whom you probably know from fun flicks like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer and Jurassic Park 3. As post-production on The Wolfman wore on, there were reports of reshoots, re-edits, and re-scoring at the last minute. There were ratings board issues, FX troubles, and a general lack of enthusiasm from the intended audience.
And none of this would be worth mentioning if it weren't all evident right up there on the screen. The flimsy musical score, the choppy editing, the plot holes, the specious special effects, and the general air of ... meh. It's as if the only reason the film is up on the screen is that Universal owns the rights to this popular character, and dammit they're going to forge a new revenue stream out of the old Wolfguy. (Although technically this may not be a remake, since this flick is called The Wolfman and the original is called The Wolf Man. World of difference to geeks like me.) It's actually kind of a shame, really, because a flat script and an egregiously choppy narrative ruin the fun that Johnston is clearly having with the visual side of the equation.
The plot, which of course is weirdly different from the first film (but not different enough to be, y'know, original), is this: Stage actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) must return to his creepy childhood estate (and deal with his loopy old dad, Anthony Hopkins) when he learns that his estranged brother has been killed. While investigating the crime at a goofy local gypsy campfire, Talbot (and several others) are attacked by a big ... hell, let's not pretend, OK? We all know he gets bit by a werewolf, and also that Talbot himself will become a bloodthirsty man/wolf upon the arrival of the next full moon.
We can forgive the overwhelmingly cliched, familiar, and predictable narrative because, let's be fair, this is a remake of a well-known story. The problem, unfortunately, is the silly "new stuff" that (normally excellent) screenwriters David Self and Andrew Kevin Walker have concocted for the remake. Without spoiling anything, I can say that you'll predict the "twist" in the flick so early and so easily, you'll spend the rest of the movie wondering how it was ever meant to be a surprise. (On the other hand, it's still a little fun to see Hopkins playing such a bastard.) In the other, non-lycantrophic, direction, we have an afterthought of a love interest for Talbot in his dead brother's fiancee. As played by Emily Blunt, the love interest is very pretty, very quiet, and very inconsequential.
So The Wolfman starts out (very) dryly but prettily, slowly gets interesting but weirdly convoluted ... and then Hugo Weaving shows up as the detective on the werewolf beat. But even this large asset is used only sparingly; Weaving gets two cool scenes in which to be slyly conniving ... and then he vanishes until the outrageously goofy ending that feels a bit like a promo reel for Teen Wolf 3. (You can plainly tell that the big finalé is a reshoot, because it's dumber and louder than the rest of the film. Lord knows you can't end a period-piece horror film without ... a big action scene. Ahem.) Del Toro is mumbly and miscast; Hopkins is doing the broad mustache-twirl; Blunt is all doe-eyed prettiness; and poor Weaving shows up to steal scenes he never gets to appear in.
It's been widely reported that Mr. Del Toro lobbied for this role because he's a big fan of the werewolf thing. I respect that, but man is he six flavors of inert in the Talbot role. Blunt fares little better; most of her blocking and dialog feels like that of a perfume commercial. Hopkins seems intent on proving he can do this stuff in his sleep. Frankly nobody seems all that interested, excited, or fascinated by working on a werewolf movie. Even the normally reliable composer Danny Elfman seems to be working on auto-pilot.
No doubt the horror fans will enjoy the numerous moments of juicy gore, but even these feel like gimmicks tossed in at the last minute. As if the producers knew they didn't have that good a movie so they just tried to make it bloodier, because that's "what horror fans like." Right? Still, Johnston does deliver some rather evocative visual touches, from his creepy CG matte paintings to his knack for crafting a nifty-looking dream sequence. There's no denying that The Wolfman looks really cool, but in the service of what? This unnecessary remake is not scary, hardly compelling, and ultimately pretty silly. One can see that the best of intentions were there behind the scenes (at one point, anyway) but the final product is an ungainly mixture of faux-old-fashioned and new-fangled-fake. It's like a really dry version of Tim Burton's (highly underrated) Sleepy Hollow, only with a lot more CGI and a lot less wit. And boy is that ending a big, sloppy mess.