Sony // 1994 // 125 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 16th, 2009
The Animal is Out.
"It feels good to be a wolf, doesn't it? Power without guilt. Love without doubt."
Will Randall (Jack Nicholson, Chinatown) is a middle-aged New York book editor whose career is on the decline. His boss (Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music) has just demoted Will and handed Will's old job to the eager young Stewart Swinton (James Spader, Boston Legal). One night as Will is driving home, he accidentally hits a wolf. The wolf appears to be dead, so Will gets out of the car to drag the creature to the side of the road. Suddenly, the wolf awakens and bites Will on the hand. Will checks in with his doctor, gets a rabies shot, and everything initially seems to be normal. However, as the next few days pass, Will discovers that his senses are behaving in an exceptionally strange manner. His eyesight is perfect, his sense of smell is astonishing, and he can hear every conversation taking place within his office building. He is filled with a newfound sense of vitality and determines to do whatever it takes to get his prestigious job back. Alas, these remarkable new powers come with a few side effects. It would seem that our formerly mild-mannered book editor is slowly transforming into a werewolf.
In addition to getting its own Blu-ray release, Mike Nichols' 1994 thriller Wolf is being packaged as part of a box set with two other monster movies of the 1990s, Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula and Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Despite the fact that these are all big-budget monster movies featuring big-name actors, the Nichols outing represents a dramatic change in style from the other two. While Dracula and Frankenstein are bombastic exercises in gothic melodrama, Wolf attempts to create as realistic and convincing a story as the werewolf movie genre will permit. It isn't on a par with the best of Nichols' work, but it remains an intelligent and engaging effort that frequently transcends the conventions of the genre.
What really interests me is the way Nicholson approaches his performance. The expected thing might have been for Nicholson to make this re-teaming with Michelle Pfeiffer an encore version of The Witches of Eastwick, having the character begin as a version of the standard Jack Nicholson role and later transform into a wild beast of overacting and special effects. No. In Wolf, Nicholson begins on a quiet, low-key note that occasionally hints at his masterful performance down the road in About Schmidt, then slowly transforms into a slightly subtle yet carnal take on the swaggering, confident Jack Nicholson we all know and love. Not at any point does Nicholson's behavior seem to go too far or enter the realm of unintentional comedy, not even during those oh-so-difficult later scenes when he is in full-blown werewolf mode. Through a combination of subtle facial mannerism and speech patterns, Nicholson offers a fascinating slow-burn character evolution over the course of the film's 125 minutes.
Despite the fact that this was a very expensive werewolf film, it spends surprisingly little time indulging the viewer with carnivorous scenes of action and horror. Nichols is not particularly interested in such things; the moments in which he actually includes them feel obligatory rather than inspired. His interest is in studying the effects of these things on the human being blessed/cursed with such an unusual condition. The pace is relaxed, taking time for such small things like conversations and examinations into the little-considered everyday peculiarities caused by Will's condition. It's fortunate that once Will changes, he does not become a one-note "wolfish individual," but remains a complex and distinct human being who just happens to have lost a few of his inhibitions. The new Will is still smart, still has a sense of humor, and still has good taste in literature. He is ordering his steak rare rather than well-done, though.
The artistic and production values are strong throughout. Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno gives the film an elegant sense of style. Screenwriters Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick provide a literate script filled with an understated sense of wit. Rick Baker's makeup effects are strong. Ennio Morricone's score finds a nice balance between terror and a sense of curious fascination. The supporting cast is loaded with sharp performances courtesy of Christopher Plummer, Kate Nelligan, Eileen Atkins, James Spader, David Hyde Piece, Ron Rifkin and Richard Jenkins. It's a classy production from head to toe.
I wish I could say the same for the Blu-ray transfer, which has some significant problems. Despite retaining a natural cinematic look complete with a moderate level of grain, there are quite a few shots that are shockingly soft and lacking in detail. There are moments here that would be crummy for a DVD release, much less a Blu-ray disc. Moments, mind you. Large portions of the film look strong and sharp. Darker scenes do have some depth, but blacks tend to be a bit overwhelming at times. The opening credits sequence looks rather terrible, too. The audio is similarly problematic, despite significant levels of energy during the high-octane scenes. The Morricone score sounds a bit wobbly and damaged, while the dialogue isn't as crisp and clear as you would expect from a film made in the '90s. The track is well-distributed, just not as clean as I'd like it to be. There are no extras included on the disc.
I mentioned that the werewolf scenes feel a bit obligatory. They do, but they're functional. However, one aspect of the film really doesn't work for me. The romantic relationship between Pfeiffer and Nicholson seems very forced. When the climactic moment comes in which the two finally make love, it doesn't seem like an organic extension of the relationship that has been developing so much as two actors obeying the commands of the screenplay. There's nothing wrong with the performances, but there's nothing to convince us that these two people would fall for each other, supernatural elements involved or otherwise.
Wolf is a good film, but I can't recommend an upgrade to this mediocre Blu-ray disc for those who own the DVD.
The film is not guilty; the Blu-ray disc fails in both the technical
department and the supplemental area.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Portuguese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R