Wolf (1994)

2013 #80
Mike Nichols | 120 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

WolfWithout meaning to spoil anything, Wolf is rated R for “language and werewolf attacks”! I love the ludicrous specificity the MPAA indulge in sometimes. I know the BBFC’s famous “mild peril” is pretty useless, but at least they draw from an academic- and objective-sounding pool of phrases in their summaries, rather than throwing in ‘advice’ that is meaningless (there are perfectly PG werewolf attacks in other movies).

Anyway, Wolf. It’s about werewolves. But don’t go thinking this is like An American Werewolf in London or The Wolfman, and certainly don’t attach it to the modern Twilight-type werewolf saga — this is a supernatural movie For Adults. Not in the sense of there being excessive violence or sex or swearing or what have you, which you might think when I’ve used adults with a capital A and highlighted the R rating — though there is a dash of all those things — but, rather, because of the characters and their situations. For instance, the titular (were)wolf is not a muscle-ripped teenage boy, but a middle-aged literary agent played by Jack Nicholson. No one wants to see him running around in the woods topless, do they? (I understand that’s the primary appeal of the werewolves in Twilight. I’ve still not seen it.)

And it’s not just about horror movie stuff, either. When he gets bitten, Nicholson’s character thinks it was just by a regular wolf. He has it treated by a doctor, that kind of thing. But then he begins to exhibit more self assurance in the workplace. Rather than meekly accepting his new posting to the back of beyond, with his protege and supposed friend stealing his current job, or that his wife is having an affair, he fights both these things. Only later does he start getting all hairy and kill-y and visiting-mysterious-shaman-y.

RealismIt’s those early sections where the film is at its best, when it tries to stay grounded in some form of realism. Any time it gets too Fantasy, it begins to get a tad silly. The climax in particular seems to come from a different film: Wolf abruptly moves from being an office politics drama with a fantasy edge, to a full-on manwolf-vs-manwolf brawl. As a straight dramatic director, Mike Nichols doesn’t seem to quite have the chops to pull off this fantasy/horror stuff without it beginning to look daft. That might not be entirely his fault, however, as reportedly the film was delayed by months to re-shoot the entire third act. Perhaps originally it had something more in-keeping? That said, he did want Michelle Pfeiffer to wear a red-hood sweatshirt during the finale! She refused, fearing it would harm the film’s credibility. She was right — it’s quite silly enough as it is.

Things do come to a head with nicely ambiguous ending, however. (Half-spoilers follow.) Rather than some pat “hero gets away with it in the end” conclusion, or even a “hero sacrifices self” moment, the primary ending is uncommon, followed by a coda that’s open to interpretation. Empire’s review reads it as a cliché, but I think that does it a disservice. It’s not enough to redeem the film, but I liked it.

One other aside I must mention is the budget: apparently it cost $70 million! How?! It would be a marvel for it to reach that figure today, never mind 20 years ago. FantasyI can only presume there were hefty paydays for Nicholson and Pfeiffer, both megastars at the time, and possibly Christopher Plummer’s supporting role, maybe Nichols, and on scoring duties (obviously), Ennio Morricone. And maybe those re-shoots were really extensive. Or perhaps they spent it all on the nighttime aerial photography of Manhattan, which is gorgeous — that would’ve been worth it.

All told, Wolf is an unbalanced film. The first hour-ish feels quite fresh, mashing together two different genres to use one as an unusual prism with which to commentate on a particular world. When it morphs into more standard werewolf territory, however, it throws away what was a unique facet in lieu of some half-rate horror-action theatrics. Shame.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2013. Read more here.

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