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As Lawrence Talbot, Benicio del Toro morphs from human form into an unimaginable monstrosity in The Wolfman. (Photo Credit: Universal Pictures/Copyright: © 2010 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)
As Lawrence Talbot, Benicio del Toro morphs from human form into an unimaginable monstrosity in The Wolfman. (Photo Credit: Universal Pictures/Copyright: © 2010 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

Film Friday

You've seen all the clichés before Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

The Wolfman

  • Starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt
  • Directed by Joe Johnston
  • Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self
  • Classification: 18A

In the 21st century, can you get away with the line, "If anything ever happened to you, I'd never forgive myself"? Or "I cannot stress enough the mortal peril you are in"? Or "The darkest hours of hell lie before you"?

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No, you can't - especially if all of these sentences (and many more like them) are uttered in the same film. In this case, the movie is The Wolfman, an ill-considered, utterly unnecessary remake of the 1941 pulp classic The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr.

Perhaps these hoary - or should that be hairy? - lines could have been redeemed with some biting wit or a flash of panache or campy self-awareness. But there's no such redemption here: The Wolfman's lycanthropic hokum is delivered straight up, as if it really were 1891 (the year in which the film is set) and we're seeing and hearing its conceits pretty much for the first time, not the 40th or the 400th. Yes, familiarity can be a comforting thing - I take my daily shower at pretty much the same time every morning and like it - but in art it's a recipe for at best boredom and at worst contempt.

Sadly, there are no real surprises in The Wolfman, no tweaks to freshen the idiom à la An American Werewolf in London or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Indeed, the film's central "mystery" is resolved at about the 50-minute mark (a mystery that even the most nonchalant viewer has figured out early on), forcing the enterprise to become one long bloody denouement, orchestrated to the relentless pound-and-throb of Danny Elfman's orchestral score. Yet for all the bloodletting, it's one anemic Wolfman.

Plot-wise, the movie has Benicio Del Toro playing Lawrence Talbot, a distinguished Shakespearean actor who, having been banished by his father (Anthony Hopkins) years earlier to the United States after his mother's apparent suicide, returns to stately, spooky Talbot Manor in England upon hearing his brother has disappeared. While at the ancestral home, he meets Gwen (Emily Blunt), his brother's fiancée.

We soon learn that the brother has been killed, horribly so - the latest victim, it seems, of some sort of howling monster loose on the misty, moonlit heath, possessed of superhuman strength and an insatiable bloodlust. The "natives," of course, are restless, scared and eager for revenge.

Travelling late one night to a nearby Roma encampment to learn more about these goings-on, Lawrence ends up being bitten by the beast. Soon he discovers the truth of the Roma adage about how even a man "who is pure of heart … may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright."

Both Del Toro and Hopkins are Oscar winners, but anyone expecting sparks in their encounters here will be disappointed. The Puerto Rican-born Del Toro delivers his lines mostly sotto voce, without affect, as if afraid that anything more passionate and less brooding might reveal a Spanish accent and blow the notion that he's of aristocratic British descent. Hopkins similarly works the quiet side of his repertoire, the very picture of nonchalant evil. Naturally, at movie's end, there's a Mothra-versus-Godzilla confrontation between the two but, while mercifully short, it's too frantic and uninvolving. Of the major players, only Blunt delivers a performance approximating real feeling.

The Wolfman is a handsome enough as far as its production values go - all cob-webbed banisters, dark bric-a-brac-filled interiors, milky light and brooding skies. Joe Johnston ( Jurassic Park III), brought in to replace Mark Romanek ( One Hour Photo) as director less than a month before the start of principal photography, is nothing if not craftsman-like. But his fondness for moon shots is wearying and too often his close-ups telegraph the mayhem that's just seconds away.

His Wolfman isn't howlingly awful; it's just not terribly scary or even suspenseful. The déjà voodoo The Wolfman trucks in has just been around too long.

Follow on Twitter: @Jglobeadams

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