So a while ago I watched Wolves, which TVTROPES helpfully describes as a 2014 throwback to old-fashioned monster movies. It’s a throwback of some kind, but, and y’know what, it’s wins Best In Show to my eye. It’s got monstrous–but charismatic–villains, quirky side characters who are allowed to be characters, a heroic hero who matures and changes; a damsel who might need rescuing, but only once and only from the big bad, not the mooks, which I feel is a totally fair scenario. Also, I really needed something decent and non-brain-challenging to watch today.
Anyhow, in my book, a good movie, regardless of genre or ultimate letter grade does several things:
– Leans into it’s concept and lets the story build on the ideas inherent into it. Werewolf = super strength = I can throw these haybales into the barn loft single-handed. Compare and contrast this to Outlander (2008), which does do not a single stinking thing with it’s concept. You’ve got space marine plus vikings vs alien monster! And it did nothing with it! The space marine loses his space armor and space guns immediately; the vikings never go sailing, pillaging, or really get to do any effective fighting, let alone with bearded axes; and the entire movie could have been transplanted somewhere else, such as the modern day, with only changes to the dialogue–not the plot, not the characters, not the setup. Hell, it could just as easily have been Cowboys ‘n Injuns vs Alien Monsters. Admittedly, I’d watch that movie, but only if it starred Ben Johnson.
– Allows characters other than the main leads to have personalities. A lot of stories fall into the trap of having secondary characters exist only for the sake of helping and bolstering the hero’s story. Hero falls off a cliff? The mentor is hanging around at the bottom to pick up the pieces, for no other reason than the plot needed them to be there. Hero has lost clothes and guns in a freak boating accident? A kindly old couple by the lakeside have nothing else better to do with their deceased son’s clothes and guns than provide them to some naked rando who just swam ashore. Hero breaks into the vet’s office to steal medicines? The veterinarian stitches him up free of charge, and let me tell you that is the most unrealistic version yet. At best, you’re getting half off on the tranquilizers, and we had to wake up the tech for X-rays, so you’re paying full price for those. In this movie? When the heroine meekly asks if his wife might, perhaps, have a spare blouse, John promptly gives a squint-eyed grin and hollers for his wife to take off her shirt. Or the heroine’s drunk sister loudly declaring that she knew it, she recognized Cayden’s scent the first time she smelled it…okay, fine, we all did, but I DID IT FIRST! Or the town wolves’ subdued resentment against Cayden for…existing?
– Lets things happen promptly. The very most basic thing that separates good of any grade, any genre, any kind or type, from bad is: the plot keeps moving along the correct path, without either random digressions or extraneous padding.
Then there are the more minor–but still important–things this movie does right. And all of these are worth expounding on, but I’m getting hungry, so suffice it to say that I really appreciate:
– This movie allows for the fact that your audience is human, and wants to see law-abiding / morally-sound humans win and dangerous animals (or criminals who look and act like them) lose.
– The mere and simple fact that rifles and ANFO bombs beat werewolves, and it’s without the kind of ridiculous escalation you’d see in a higher-budget movie or a Monster Hunter Nation story (GUN! OTHER GUN! BIGGER GUN! ANOTHER BIGGER GUN WITH BIGGER BULLETS! ANOTHER WEREWOLF WITH BIGGER JAWS! FLAMETHROWER! SMALLER GUN WITH SILVER BULLETS! MORE GUNS! And then by that time you have to beat the poor thing over the head a couple of times to put it out of your misery. Unnecessary and excessive.) I like this take a lot better. A healing factor is a healing factor, not a restore-life-from-last-save-point factor when you’ve just gotten a major artery punctured by high velocity lead injection, or your brain has been scrambled by a hollowpoint to the eyesocket. Or your arms and legs have been torn off and the stumps cauterized by explosives. (Note: this movie is rated, at most, PG-13. There is no excessive gore, nudity, or costly violence.)
– A heroic hero. Cayden starts out conflicted. He makes mistakes and hurts people–but regrets it and struggles against his darker nature. He also makes mistakes when he tries to fight without going all the way–and learns that sometimes, you have no choice but to fight to kill. And even then, being a hero, Cayden offers his enemies one last chance out. Caden is allowed to use violence, and he becomes, through the course of the movie, someone who can use it responsibly.
The miscellaneous: there’s smoking in this movie. Tollerman and Connor both smoke Cool Guy pipes and Wild Joe puffs on a wild-boy cigar. Somehow you don’t see that very much, these days.
The bad: honestly, the worst I have to say about it is that the transformed werewolves (humans in slightly-ripped but generally bicep- or midriff-baring clothing + furry wolf masks) look silly, and the fight scenes are correspondingly underwhelming.
The cast: Lucas Till and Stephen McHattie are both excellent. Till plays a square-jawed yet fresh-faced and cowlicked hero with enough conviction to make me mostly overlook the fact that he’s…not an actor with a great range. On the other hand, he’s well-written, and he’s got enough nuance in his voiceover / narration performance to pull it off. McHattie, though, steals the show in every scene he’s in. On paper, he’s the standard mentor/paterfamilias figure…in practice, he’s sly, cool, dignified, clever, and completely in command of both his pipe, the camera, and his southern drawl. Jason Momoa is his standard gruff-voiced alpha (huh) male. The guy might have good abs but you will not convince me he’s a good actor. Also, the guy who plays Wild Joe, whose name I did not remember to look up on IMDB before writing this, is very good, although honestly all he has to do is ham it up and go RRRAAA once or twice. He hams very well.
Merritt Patterson, as the female lead…doesn’t get as much from the script as Till does, as is therefore a lot blander. Still, she does her best at a moderately thankless damsel / love-interest, and as such isnt’t bad. Her semi-alcoholic sister was a lot more entertaining to watch and arguably cuter, but never mind. It’s bad show to have alcoholic love interests, and love interests don’t necessarily need personalities, anyway. And…honestly, that’s about it.
The plot: So things are good for Cayden Slaughter (subtle, movie, subtle.) He’s a football QB, aka local demigod, in a small town; has loving parents and a hot girlfriend–and yet things are somehow wrong. His parents are worried about his recurring nightmares; his flashes of inexplicable strength and dramatic rage cause outright injury to a football rival…not to mention that no girl likes being bitten full-on, in the face, or viciously clawed during a makeout session. The idea he’s losing his mind seems to be promptly proven right when he wakes up one morning to find blood on his hands and his parents….slaughtered. Oh, and a patrol car rolling up since his now-ex girlfriend reported him for assault.
It takes all of five minutes for this to happen. See what I said about things moving promptly?
Cayden is horrified, terrified, and grieving. But pragmatic. He goes on the run for an unspecified amount of time, trying to stay ahead of his terrible killer instinct–or abilities. This lasts for all of one scene, at which point we the audience are reassured that, yes, Cayden is the hero here. He wolfs out again–semi-voluntarily, to rescue a truck stop lot lizard from a couple of abusive bikers–leaving them dead, her alive and running away screaming, and himself with a new ride and leather jacket. (Also incidentally, we and Cayden learn from a TV broadcast that he was adopted.)
But we’re dealing with a young, clean-cut hero here. Cayden isn’t the kind of grizzled, weary anti-hero who can or intends to live this kind of life for his entire, well, life. We, the audience, get to hear his narrated thoughts. He has been looking for a solution….it’s just that there seems to be one way out: suicide.
Fortunately (or so it seems) for Cayden, at this point he meets Wild Joe, a loner werewolf who points him in the direction of Lupine Ridge (SUBTLE, MOVIE), where most of the werewolves live and the most vicious secretive pack on God’s green Earth are, before vanishing to the roof to watch him go. (I just noticed that Cayden apparently motorcycles through St. Louis on his way to Lupine Ridge. Okay, random way of showing he’s traveling through the midwest, especially since he’s supposed to be keeping a low profile on the run, but sure.)
So anyhow, Cayden finally arrives in Lupine Ridge and instantly finds himself the center of attention at the only bar in town. Which might be a good thing when the attention is coming from the hot bartender, but is less so when it’s also coming from the rough-looking type at a table in the back (Jason Momoa: Connor [wait for it] Slaughter), or from the calm old guy at a corner booth who smokes a pipe and watches what goes on without speaking (John McHattie: John Tollerman). Or the shifty guy who tries to pick a fight (some actor.) Or the other shifty kind of guy who just stares a lot (some actor: some shifty guy who will meet no good end. I think his arm gets bitten off.)
Tollerman offers Cayden (aka Danny) a job on his farm and things seem to be going well for a while (read: for the space of one scene.) A home is offered, no prying is done, and no questions are asked, even with Cayden hauling gigantic rocks out of the ground by hand and hurling 50-pound haybales into the hayloft without tools and scaring the animals just by walking past. Oh, and chopping wood shirtless. That’s always a good sign.
Cue Connor-Momoa showing up to ask said questions instead. Tollerman covers: Danny is his nephew, whom he originally didn’t recognize at first; and incidentally, Danny, stay out of Connor’s way.
The next morning, there’s a slaughtered (GEDDIT), gutted sheep in one of the pens. Tollerman, however, seems to blame hungry wolves from up in the hills…what else could it be, Danny boy? OH HAH, THEY’RE HAVING LAMB FOR SUPPER BUT CAYDEN CHOOSES TO START WITH SALAD LOL HOW DID I MISS THAT BEFORE. Good one, movie.
Anyhow, Cayden also pursues a closer acquaintance with the hot bartender (Merritt Patterson: Angelina), in defiance of the advice given him by the shifty-eyed guy–who warns him to get out of down before he gets them all killed. He doesn’t know who Cayden is, but he’ll figure it out and when he does, man….(cue both of them noticing that Connor is on the other side of the parking lot, smoking a pipe and watching, uh oh.)
Hot Bartender Angel and Cayden bond over both being orphans, as people tend to.
Meanwhile, shifty-eyed guy is executed by wolf after a brief interrogation. Honestly, I realize that running is really the natural reaction, but surely there’s a point at which someone is going to try and climb a tree…or put their back to it and try to fight. Oh well. Angel and Cayden stumble over the evil wolf camp in the woods, where the pack is, well, they’re eating him.
Angel reveals that, yes, she knows about it; she knows Cayden is a wolf; and the Tollermans also reveal that they (HAH) TiVo’d the news report about him. Mr. Tollerman is a wolf, too. In fact, most of the townspeople are, and Cayden really is his nephew. His mother, Lucinda, was his sister’s daughter–a pureblooded werewolf of the old lines. Connor raped Lucinda; the Tollermans took her in, faked her death, and then adopted Cayden out…only for Lucinda to commit suicide and Connor to run completely off the rails.
There’s been an arrangement for years: the wild pack runs in the hills (and has been steadily devolving, spending less time in human form and more time as animals); the town wolves tend to live totally as humans, intermarrying with them (“I just like men with chest hair”) and both sides are supposed to keep a low profile and maintain the secret. Problem is: Connor’s getting older, and he wants a pure-bred son. With Angel–the last remaining pureblood. And Angel, lest her remaining family be murdered, perforce has to go along with it.
Our hero and heroine bond some more over being orphans…Caden self-made, and Angel’s via murder-suicide. She and her sister have never managed to decide whether it was the wolf, the man, or the alcohol that did it. Angel tries to reassure him that he doesn’t have the soul of a killer, and also that being a wolf can be kind of a sweet deal, actually. Especially if your girlfriend is also a wolf as well. (Tollerman is very careful to announce his presence before he enters the barn, one discrete timelaps later.)
Next on the agenda is a council of war….but the town wolves aren’t very sanguine about their chances against the wild ones–especially if Connor finds out that his destined babymama has been fooling around with the stranger from out of town. Some of them are basically fully human and haven’t changed shape in years. (“Yeah, I can barely grow my sideburns anymore. Just a little fuzz. Hic!”) They’re totally willing to overlook livestock going missing, children going missing, and Angel being given to Connor…
…Cayden isn’t. “Stay in your homes tonight. And lock your doors.” See what I said above, about heroes. I like this one. [Oh boy, I’m visualizing my next attempted watch party…]
Unfortunately, since we’re only about halfway through the movie, what happens is a) Connor finds out that Cayden is Lucinda’s son, b) doesn’t care, c) Cayden gets his ass kicked and d) barely manages to throw himself off a cliff to presumed-certain death but actual safety. In his defense, he’s fighting an entire pack of people in biker vests and fuzzy masks sorry, wolves. Also, e) Caydenwolf has a poofy cowlick just like the human form does, lol.
Anyhow, who should turn up at this point but Wild Joe, a barely less undesirable alternative to the actual pack of veral wolves. But he does provide Cayden enough impetus to get up and limp back home to Angel and Tollerman, and, once Cayden regroups (seems that wolfing out + vigorous wolfy exercise is the secret to instant healing), the council of war reconvenes. It’s a council of two, and they’re the only people who can or will fight. They have no choice but to, at this point! But at this point, they’re going to fight smart.
Cue ANFO and shotguns, and needless to say, I officially love this movie. Mind you, this movie doesn’t appear to actually know what ANFO is, because the bombs appear to be made of cow manure and gunpowder from shotgun shells stuffed into burlap sacks, but at least they tried.
But Connor moves faster than expected, snatches the home folk, and leaves a cordial wedding invitation written in what’s either blood or very smeary red ink. Huh. Which is it? I consider this a decent question because all parties, when we see them that night at the, uh, party, appear to be in one piece–including Clara and John. So…where did the red ink come from? Were those invites printed off ahead of time or written ahead of time? I mean…that would kind of make more sense than carrying around a bottle of liquid ink, right? Or did one of the pack wolves cut themselves and write it?
Anyhow. Party. Connor, it might be added, is wearing a gigantic pimp coat + hat. One wonders if that’s what Momoa showed up in and they just had to roll with it, because it looks even stupider than his usual outfits. ConnorMomoa is playing this off a bit weirdly, too, actually–he’s been fairly intense and straightforward so far, but at this point he’s going for a bit of broad comedy and it’s weird. Funny, but weird. I guess he’s supposed to be drunk and playing to the crowd. Nevertheless.
(Angel is dressed up in a strategically-shredded white dress and she’s also tied to a tree and drugged.)
So, by the way, remember that shifty guy from the beginning who I thought got his arm ripped off? My bad, he actually gets his throat cut when Cayden takes out the sentries. Nice.
Anyhow, Cayden arrives in time to object to the wedding, fling Connor’s delusions of wolfhood in his face, and then….not get his ass kicked, because this time he’s fighting the way a hero should fight when the time comes to fight: all-out. No, that’s not the point of this scene. The point is, BIG FIGHT, MUCH RARRR, and this time even Angel gets in on the action. She breaks Tollerman out of the cage–to go enact part B of the plan AKA things go explodey down at the farm–but stays with the human Clara and her almost-human sister Gail to guard them. (That’s actually very smart play on the filmmakers’ part, since it allows for the heroes to run around and do hero menfolk things with the focus on the action, without crowding the battlefield and storyline with excess characters.)
Cayden, like a hero does, gives his enemies one last warning. Then some things go boom and a bunch of wolves get killed, including one who gets shot in the head while he’s standing in the middle of the front yard arguing with Connor, oh that was delicious. NICE. Then they get lured into the barn and the barn blows up all explodeylike, except that Connor leaps out of the flames and tears off his vest which would be a lot more interesting if he wasn’t all FurryMomoa at the moment, MOVIE.
Anyhow, FurryMomoa fights Cowlickwolf. Much GRR. Shwoosh arrrr vrrrr. Etc. And if you’re wondering why John Tollerman, with his rifle, isn’t just shooting the villain, it’s because a) Cayden tells him not to, b) he was reloading. Connor, with his dying breath (I presume it’s dying, anyway, because he turns back into a shirtless Jason Momoa, and OF COURSE THE CAMERA STAYS STEADFASTLAY ABOVE HIS CLAVICLE) protests that he actually loved Lucinda and had to take the fall for her getting pregnant so her father wouldn’t kill her.
At this point, Wild Joe turns up to taunt Connor a bit. Turns out, Wild Joe was exiled from town by Connor’s father (for being too wild…the mind boggles)…and now, poetic irony, the son destroys the father whose father destroyed the son and also who ate the brother, how the table turns, best served cold, etc, except that in Wild Joe’s case he probably just bashes it against a rock so it quits wiggling and blows on it a couple of times. Joe is, in fact, so busy gloating that he lets slip that he actually killed Cayden’s adoptive parents.
(“You did what?”
So Cayden attacks Wild Joe and gets punched in the face, at which point Connor attacks Wild Joe and Wild Joe rips his throat out. Joe then turns his attentions back to Cayden, but then Tollerman shoots him nonfatally a couple of times or at least until he runs out of ammo and Joe falls over. (“You were never too wild for this town, Joe–just too crazy.”)
Wild Joe then has the nerve to say that wolves–real wolves–only kill for food, or defense. Woooh boy, where to start with that one. a) not true, b) even if so, it doesn’t help your case, c) you’re a moron who just admitted you killed the hero’s adoptive parents in order to manipulate him, killed his biological father, attacked and brutalized him, twice, and then begged for help. And we get the most satisfying line in the movie: “I’m not a wolf, Joe. I’m a human being.”
It’s at this point Joe realizes he’s standing on a bomb, and Cayden is holding a lit match.
So now it’s all over but for burying the bodies in the soybean field and getting breakfast and loading up the motorcycle for a long ride, destination: Dunno, Uncle John, Angel wants to go ANYWHERE THAT IS OUTSIDE OF LUPINE RIDGE. Uncle John bids them goodbye and warns them to be careful of sequel hooks, uh, I mean, werewolves.
So, yeah. That’s this movie. It’s actually pretty good.