Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt
Directed by: Joe Johnston (“Hidalgo”)
Written by: Andrew Kevin Walker (“Sleepy Hollow”) and David Self (“The Haunting”)
Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro (“Traffic”) phones in his performance as an iconic monster in “The Wolfman,” a re-imaging of the 1941 classic starring Lon Chaney Jr. It’s not only Del Toro, however, who should take the blame for how terribly things go for the creature feature, which was delayed an entire year because of production problems.
Despite starting off on the wrong paw, one can’t ignore the talented cast pinned down for “Wolfman,” including Del Toro. From Oscar winner Sir Anthony Hopkins (“Silence of the Lambs”) to the young and blossoming starlet Emily Blunt (“The Young Victoria”) to the reliable Hugo Weaving (“V for Vendetta”), some of the pieces are definitely here. It’s unfortunate that director Joe Johnston (“Hidalgo”) and screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker (“Sleepy Hollow”) and David Self (“The Haunting”) fail to create any type of suspense or frightening scenes to match these actors’ supporting roles or the eerie gothic cinematography by Shelly Johnson.
Ultimately, “The Wolfman” becomes a film that can’t decide whether it wants to be a throwback to the monster movies of the past mid-century or take the easy way out and go full-gore for mainstream audiences. It chooses both and succeeds at neither.
In the film, Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, a thespian who is summoned home to England after many years away to search for his missing brother Ben. Contacted by Ben’s fiancée Gwen (Blunt), Lawrence returns home to find he is too late. His brother’s body was found mutilated in the woods. Theories begin to flood in as to what could have killed Ben in such a manner. Gypsies? A Bengal tiger? A raving lunatic?
When the townspeople find out Lawrence had been sent to an asylum by his father (Hopkins) years before, suspicions start turning to him. Lawrence becomes a prime suspect when he is bitten in the neck by a mysterious beast. Soon, other folks turn up slaughtered and word spreads that the Talbot household is cursed. Weaving plays Scotland Yard Inspector Abberline, who steps in to hunt down whatever is shredding up residents.
As the carnage continues by way of campy decapitations and close-ups of intestines spread across the ground, Johnston provides no real tone or direction and lets “The Wolfman” ride the wave of blood. Is this a story about a man fighting his inner demons and trying to understand the nightmares he continues to have about the death of his mother or is this a straight-forward monster movie in the same mold as “Underworld” and “Van Helsing?”
No matter what it wants to be, there’s not enough of a story to support “The Wolfman” and Lawrence’s transformation, whether it’s physical or emotional. Relying mostly on computer-generated effect also doesn’t help its cause as it attempts to claw its way back to the roots of the genre. While six-time Oscar-winning make-up artist Rick Baker (“An American Werewolf in London”) had his hand in this one, it’s evident he didn’t have free reign to do what he does best. For that, “The Wolfman” suffers greatly. This setback, however, is only skin deep. There’s a more elusive identity crisis the film runs into that can’t be cured with a few extra prosthetics or layers of facial hair or even a Del Toro performance where the actor actually decides to show up.
Benicio del Toro isn’t a stranger to playing complex characters. From his Academy Award-winning role as Mexican police officer Javier Rodríguez in “Traffic” to his Academy Award-nominated role as born-again ex-convict Jack Jordan in “21 Grams,” del Toro’s characters over the last few years have had a heartbreaking depth to them.
In his newest film “Things We Lost in the Fire” – which could possibly garner him his third Oscar nomination – del Toro plays Jerry Sunborne, a former lawyer turned heroine addict whose only friend in the world, Steven Burke (David Duchovny), is murdered during an altercation in a parking lot.
The tragedy thrusts Jerry into the life of Steven’s wife Audrey (Halle Berry), who never understood why her husband cared so much for a man who threw everything away for drugs.
Although del Toro had never seen any of director Susanne Bier’s films, which include “Brothers” and “After the Wedding,” he was quickly taken in by the script, which was written by first-time screenwriter Allan Loeb.
“I felt something when I read the script,” del Toro, 40, told me during press day at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.
When he finally met with Susanna and saw her movies, del Toro said she was someone he definitely wanted to work with.
“I saw that the themes of the movie…were going to be treated serious,” del Toro said. “Then Halle Berry jumped in and got everything rolling.”
To portray a man battling a drug addiction, del Toro said he met with a doctor who was an expert in addiction and spoke to recovering addicts when he attended a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He also read literature on the subject, including “Junkie” by William S. Burroughs, and incorporated real-life experiences he has had with friends who have had drug problems.
“I came to Susanna with a bunch of ingredients,” del Toro said. “You draw from life. That was my recipe for my research.”
Although many of the themes were serious in nature, Halle Berry said working with del Toro proved to be amusing since he was always making her laugh on set.
“When you have Benicio del Toro around, you cannot really get too heavy about anything because he has a wonderful way of finding the funny in every situation,” Berry said. “It was really nice to sit back and watch that. That added some lightness throughout the day.”
Even a tense scene between del Toro and Berry didn’t seem to phase the duo. In the scene, Jerry is supposed to lean in to kiss Audrey, a scenario that was not in the first draft of the screenplay.
“[The kiss] was not scripted,” del Toro said. “We were doing [the scene] without the kiss and there was something not working. Susanna was not too happy with how it was going. Then she came up and said, ‘I think you should try to kiss her’ and I said, ‘Don’t mind if I do.’”
Currently, del Toro is shooting two films – “The Argentine” and “Guerilla” –based on the life of revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Both easily seem like Oscar-baited roles, of course, but does winning awards really matter to the Puerto Rico-born star?
“It’s an honor to be part of that tradition and to be part of the books and to be recognized for what you do,” del Toro said. “But you don’t [act] to [win awards]. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t…kick and scream.”