Some movies today are so generic that they might as well be keys to better, more imaginative entries in their genre. That’s not to doubt the difficulty of creating a good old fashioned werewolf story, when there are so many others before it –from John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London to Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves – that have taken this folklore and done remarkable things with it.
But that doesn’t excuse the lack of originality in Wolves. While there’s plenty of professionalism to be seen in the editing, makeup, and set design, saving this uninspired story from becoming an eye sore, there isn’t a well-crafted screenplay to harness the necessary tension and suspense. There’s no energy to what seems to be here the lycanthropic version of Rebel without a Cause.
Wolves begins more in the vein of a Western than Nicolas Ray’s classic. Young Cayden (Lucas Till) is on the lam after an incident at home leaves his parents dead and the authorities on his tail. He shows up in the aptly named hamlet Lupine Range, swaggers into the local saloon, and succeeds effortlessly at drawing unwanted attention to himself. A local gang, headed by bearish Connor (Jason Momoa), starts to sniff out the pilgrim and don’t like what seeps into their nostrils.
But this isn’t a town that settles disputes with duels, but instead a more primitive contest: werewolf brawls. That’s easy since the town’s populace consists entirely of those carnivorous hybrids, and they won’t hesitate to transform at the slightest provocation. But Cayden wishes to suppress those primitive instincts, although his fancy for the comely barmaid Angelina (Merritt Patterson) makes this attempt at abstinence a fool’s errand.
Wolves shows promise when the great Stephen McHattie struts in, barring his mean teeth, grizzled beard, and a contemptuous grin –like he does best. He’s a local farmer and an ally of Cayden, who warns the young outsider that this town is ensnared in a nasty feud between the town and mountain wolves. At this realization, we feel the Twilight syndrome kick in. To boot, it is also revealed that the menacing Connor wants Angelina to rear him a son – a plot point that ought to have Stephenie Meyer wagging her finger in protest for residuals.
At the risk of sounding facetious, let me clarify that the issue with Wolves has nothing to do with any violation of creative license. It’s certainly not original, but at the same time I give the filmmakers credit for trying to fashion a Jets versus Sharks scenario out of a Lon Chaney, Jr. tale. There’s also a fun performance from John Pyper-Ferguson as Werewolf Joe, another one of those voracious manimals that don’t take too kind to strangers.
The central flaw resides in writer-director David Hayter’s screenplay. This is somewhat of a surprise since Hayter, otherwise known as the voice of Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid, is supposedly a venerable screenwriter having written the first two X-Men movies and co-written Watchmen. But there’s no craftsmanship to this wooden dialogue, which the actors always deliver with lethargic gruffness to pretend there’s a sense of threat behind those dreary written words.
The screenplay only generates caricatures, which would be okay if this film had an ironic sense of humour or played to parody. Unfortunately, in this case, dullness trumps camp. Till is also too passive as the leading presence; we only appreciate it him as a boyish naif, not for his physicality or resourcefulness. In fact, there’s more to root for in the spectacle of McHattie aiming his rifle at some big bad wolves and shooting their maws off.
But sadly, Wolves, unlike its titular beasts of the full-mooned night, fails to transform us –in any visceral, cinematic, or emotional way.