Wolf (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"Even a man who is pure in heart,
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the Autumn moon is bright."
- The Wolf Man (1941)

As the saying goes, "everything old is new again." In the Fall of 1992, there was Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula. This November, that will be joined by Kenneth Branagh's take on Frankenstein. And, in between, we have the Mike Nichols/Jack Nicholson collaboration on the legend of The Wolf Man. Less a remake than a new exploration of lycanthropy, Wolf nevertheless recalls the days of black-and-white horror films, when names like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney Jr. topped marquees with the promise of chills and shudders.

For the most part, however, Wolf's strengths are in entirely different areas than its most obvious inspiration, 1941's The Wolf Man. While both movies boast an excellent, almost-palpable sense of atmosphere, and share some necessary plot elements, there the similarities end. This film brings the mythology into the nineties, complete with corporate power struggles, cheating wives, and an attempted mugging in Central Park.

All Wolf demands of its audience is that they accept the idea that a man bitten by a wolf can be mystically turned into that animal. The film is directed with sufficient flair by Mike Nichols, and acted ably enough by its cast, to make this suspension of belief a facile task. The problems surrounding the movie have nothing to do with its premise.

The picture opens with Will Randall (Jack Nicholson), the chief editor at a New York City publishing office, driving down a snowy Vermont road, using his sleeve to wipe away condensation on the front window. Suddenly, there's a shape ahead and his car slams into a wolf. When he gets out to investigate, he is bitten, and the infection begins to have its sinister effects.

The first changes are apparent in the sudden acuity of his sensory perceptions and a marked shift in personality. No longer a meek, easygoing man, Will becomes decidedly "wolfish" in fighting for his job when billionaire Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer) takes over the publishing firm and threatens to replace him with the weasel-like sycophant Stewart Swinton (James Spader). Will also gains a measure of courage when it comes to dealing with members of the opposite sex, as is displayed in his interactions with Alden's daughter, Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer).

The office politics, and how Will's new "identity" affect his dealings with his boss, co-workers, and clients, are masterfully handled by Nichols, whose edge of satire is sharpened to its keenest. The director might have been advised to spend more time in this setting, because, when his film moves outdoors, and the transformation becomes literal, Wolf finds itself sputtering.

As tremendous as the character interaction is, the "horror" sequences, which feature rather routine transformations (courtesy of makeup virtuoso Rick Baker), are flat. Monster movies are supposed to frighten the audience; this one fails utterly in that arena. It's odd to say that Nicholson isn't scary, but that's mainly because he plays his character with a touch of subtlety that courts, and wins, the audience's sympathy.

The last half of Wolf is a disappointment. The corporate wrangling dissolves into the background as other, less-enjoyable subplots take center stage. Will's cautious relationship with Laura (which includes inspired dialogue about what she wants in a man) suddenly, and irrationally, turns passionately romantic, complete with dumb lines like "I love you more than I've ever loved anyone else." And action and silly fangs are given too much prominence in an unnecessary and misplaced climactic battle.

The acting, both by the leads and the supporters, is solid. Nicholson's restrained performance makes Will Randall believable, and, although somewhat underused, Michelle Pfeiffer still creates a reasonably-balanced personality for Laura. James Spader's Stewart calls to mind another member of the animal kingdom -- the rat. Kate Nelligan, Richard Jenkins, and Eileen Atkins all do fine jobs in small roles, and Christopher Plummer's corporate tycoon is a delight to behold.

Ironically, it's the werewolf part of Wolf that's the least successful. Lacking the style and panache of the film's better elements, the scenes of Nicholson prowling on all-fours fail to impress. Nichols successfully punctures the jugular when he focuses on predators in suits; his efforts are less accurate when Wolf's attention shifts to those with hair on their palms.

Wolf (United States, 1994)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 1994-06-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1