If Woody Allen were ever to make a horror movie, it probably would be a lot like 'Wolf' – literate, stylish, impeccably cast, and infused with plenty of caustic wit. Though the idea of Allen venturing down such a macabre path seems preposterous, who would have thought esteemed director Mike Nichols ('The Graduate,' 'Closer') would ever tackle a film of this sort either? 'Wolf,' however, is far from a typical mainstream exercise in shock and schlock. Elegantly photographed, with an abundance of sly humor and intriguing mystery, this offbeat, uneven, yet oddly fascinating thriller courts erudite sophisticates instead of scream-hungry teens. That's a peculiar target audience for a werewolf movie, but 'Wolf' is more about the beast within than the hairy, salivating animal that howls at the moon and hungers for human flesh. And it has a grand old time telling its twisted story.
Rumpled, mild-mannered William Randall (Jack Nicholson) is a highly respected senior editor for a hallowed New York publishing firm run by Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer). One snowy, full-moon night, Randall's car hits a huge black wolf on a country road, and when he ventures forth to inspect the prone specimen, the animal attacks and bites him. The shaken editor seeks medical attention upon his return to Manhattan, but the rabies shot he receives can't inoculate him against the physical transformation he's about to undergo or the personal and professional upheaval awaiting him. Blithely dismissing his years of service, Alden demotes Randall in favor of his protégé, unctuous suck-up Stewart Swinton (James Spader), with whom, Randall later discovers, his wife (Kate Nelligan) is having an affair. Randall, at first, adopts a defeatist attitude, but as the days go by, his spirit revives. Increased energy, agility, and enhanced senses of sight, smell, and hearing pump up his ego and fuel a desire to aggressively combat his predicament. (He also notices a crop of hair growing around his wound and a newfound passion for rare meat.) As the wolf begins to root itself within him, Randall finds an ally in Alden's rebellious, headstrong daughter, Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer), but his increasingly bizarre behavior threatens to derail his burgeoning relationship and destroy life as he knows it.
Let's face it, any werewolf movie requires considerable suspension of disbelief, especially when highly recognizable actors don fangs, fur, and claws, but 'Wolf' walks the delicate tightrope between reality and fantasy well enough to reel us in. Far from a typical horror movie, 'Wolf' juggles its jolts with a tongue-in-cheek tone that both lightens the mood and highlights the story's psychological underpinnings. (It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, 'Wolf' tells us, and you better sharpen those incisors if you want to survive.) With subtle bite, the film skewers corporate backstabbing, Manhattan society, and dysfunctional relationships, and the playful attitude helps us accept the eerie, canine goings-on with a wink and a nod.
Of course, the same attributes that enhance 'Wolf' also muddle it. The movie often struggles to find its course, abruptly shifting from comedy to thriller to romance and back again. Writers Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick put a great modern spin on the werewolf legend – though how good can a werewolf film really be without 1940s character actress Maria Ouspenskaya skulking around? – and to his credit, Nichols maintains suspense well and crafts an appropriately spooky mood. Yet despite the clever treatment, 'Wolf' is hardly worthy material for the director, and little more than a passing diversion for viewers.
Nicholson has portrayed many wolves on screen (and may be one in real life), but none quite as overt as Randall. It's a part he was born to play, and the actor's wild eyes, unkempt hair, and maniacal facial expressions (think Jack Torrance of 'The Shining' in a steroid rage) make his leap to a wild beast easy to grasp. Though most actors would look ridiculous scowling, salivating, and snorting, it all comes naturally to Nicholson, who pulls it off without a hitch. Pfeiffer, fresh from her feline turn as Catwoman in 'Batman Returns,' is sleek and sexy, but isn't on screen as much as we'd like, and as the wolf in sheep's clothing, Spader nicely expands on the supercilious, two-faced Yuppie that was once his trademark. Nelligan, Plummer, Richard Jenkins, and David Hyde Pierce also acquit themselves well, and eagle eyes will spot Allison Janney and a pre-'Friends' David Schwimmer in small parts.
'Wolf' is a monster movie for grown-ups, and for those seeking ghoulish Halloween fare with a touch of perverted romance, plenty of humorous overtones, and a mild fright quotient, Nichols' stylish film fills the bill. It may not be one of the director's best efforts, but it's an intriguing curio that deserves a look.
Much like the movie, the transfer of 'Wolf' is a bit uneven. The opening titles of this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 effort look impressive, but the image quickly turns soft and becomes hampered by thick grain and faded colors. Mosquito noise consistently plagues darker backgrounds, but the lack of any digital enhancements keeps the film-like feel intact. Muted contrast lends interiors a flat look, but exteriors fare better, exhibiting a sleeker, crisper appearance. Lush, well-saturated greens add warmth to the image, and a silhouetted scene by a moonlit lake is beautifully defined and benefits from marvelous depth.
Close-ups can be striking, and though detail levels only sporadically attain the hoped for degree of clarity, the film still possesses a distinct high-def feel. Much of the film was studio shot, and that artificiality is now more evident than ever. On the whole, though, fans should be pleased with the image upgrade, but the lack of consistency prevents the transfer from receiving higher marks.
The powerful 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is largely front-centered, but stereo separation is distinct, and plenty of ambient effects – chirping birds, a babbling brook – provide intermittent surround activity. (At times, the birds become a bit annoying, and with so much of this film shot on a soundstage, it's a good bet the tweets were thickly applied to the track in post-production.) Unfortunately, shock effects crash through the speakers at ear-splitting levels, but if you keep volume subdued as a defense mechanism, it's difficult to hear the dialogue. As a result, achieving a comfortable listening level can be a challenge. Ennio Morricone's music score, however, sounds robust and full, making good use of a wide dynamic scale, and though bass frequencies are muted much of the time, a few instances of heavy low tones add great depth and emphasis to key scenes. Solid, but not spectacular, the audio presentation of 'Wolf' pretty much matches its video note for note.
A strong cast and clever script make 'Wolf' worth watching. Mike Nichols' slick homage to the werewolf legend features a typically maniacal Jack Nicholson performance and a host of other colorful portrayals, all of which overshadow the more predictable elements of this macabre thriller. The video and audio won't blow you away, and the lack of supplements makes me want to howl, but the film itself is entertaining enough to merit a look.
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