In screen presence, charisma and talent, Till vs. Momoa is no competition in David Hayer's limp debut, 'Wolves'
Wolves Ketchup Entertainment
Director: David Hayter
Screenplay: David Hayter
Starring: Lucas Till, Merritt Patterson, Jason Momoa, Stephen McHattie, Melanie Scrofano and John Pyper-Ferguson
Rated R / 1 hour, 31 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
Is there a shortage of compelling, young, lead-role types roaming around Hollywood?
There's a preponderance of movies that require exactly those types of roles, and yet apparently very little genuine talent available to fill them. For an industry so reliant on replenishing talent, this must be a troubling trend. (Surely a world in which Taylor Lautner has an acting career is a world in dire need of up-and-coming actors.)
In any case, it seems like every week I see a new low- to mid-budget movie with a new anonymous lead actor who sucks the energy out of every moment he appears on camera. (Are they doing actual screen tests for these guys?) It's getting to the point of seeming deliberate, as if the casting directors' central qualification is to find someone who looks the part but is as bland and inoffensive as possible. Never mind charisma, screen presence, personality, edge - none of it, apparently, matters. The more flavorless, the better.
The latest illustration is Lucas Till, who has the task of being a romantic lead, a complicated antihero and an emotionally volatile werewolf all at once in David Hayter's Wolves, and fails to leave an impression at any of those three tasks. I mean, he looks like a leading man - longish blond hair, blue eyes, boyish good looks - but yikes, don't expect him to deliver a line with any authority or zeal.
I wouldn't make such an issue of Till's casting if it weren't emblematic of such a persistent trend. There are so many similarly vanilla young actors and performances that it makes the standouts stand out even more - the likes of Caleb Landry Jones in Antiviral (or anything, for that matter), Alex Essoe in Starry Eyes, Zoey Deutch in Vampire Academy, Nat Wolff in Palo Alto. To name a few.
Till plays Cayden Richards, a hotshot high-school kid who discovers his werewolf altar ego sometime during his senior year, first when he nearly rapes his girlfriend in the front seat of his car, and later on when he wakes up to find that he has viciously torn his parents to shreds and feasted on their remains. (And right in the middle of the living room, too - which is poor decorum, if nothing else.)
While Michael J. Fox long ago taught us that transforming into a werewolf turns you into a world-class basketball player, Cayden doesn't stick around to try out for the team, but leaves town immediately and becomes a drifter, roaming from town to town trying to keep his more savage impulses at bay. Only when he runs into Wild Joe (John Pyper-Ferguson, deliciously chewing the scenery and practically making Till disappear from the screen in the process) does Cayden begin to get a handle on his identity, and a hint about its origins. Wild Joe can sniff out a fellow werewolf in a second - and he does just that, casually introducing himself to Cayden and boasting all about the benefits that come with life as a werewolf.
Eventually the conversation leads to Cayden's background, and sends him back on the road toward the small town of Lupine Ridge. What he finds there is an isolated and very secretive community of werewolves whose bloodlines go back generations. The wolves, and in effect the town, is lorded over by Connor (Jason Momoa, in a perfect bit of casting because he is an actual werewolf), who takes an instant dislike to Cayden the night he strolls into town and begins making trouble at the local watering hole.
It's within this character conflict that the film's biggest miscalculation shines through. In physical terms, it goes without saying that Cayden will pale in comparison to Connor; he's the underdog, the young upstart. Being physically outmatched is part of the formula. But in cinematic terms, the Till/Momoa pairing is problematic because it's such a one-sided affair. If this movie accomplishes nothing else, it proves that Momoa has more than enough screen presence for better roles and better movies than this. He's a limited actor, but a compulsively interesting one, and certainly one who can command the screen. He does that here, regardless of the film's many other weaknesses.
At a certain point in Wolves, he and Pyper-Ferguson finally share the screen, and you begin to wish that the whole movie had just been a two-hander between those two. To hell with the coming-of-age angle.
Instead we get a lot of wasted time with Till trying on a variety of unconvincing facial expressions (often sharing scenes with Stephen McHattie, the veteran character actor who makes stately stoicism look so easy) and getting involved with a completely forced and undeveloped "romance" with Angelina (Merritt Patterson). On the plus side, at least for comedy's sake, that romance leads to a completely gratuitous and terribly choreographed sex scene - in a barn, a literal roll in the hay - that also features the most obvious butt double of all-time.
I give Hayter - the veteran screenwriter of several X-Men films, as well as Watchmen and The Scorpion King, here making his feature directing debut - credit for the decision to use practical makeup and prosthetics for the werewolf scenes, rather than the shoddy werewolf CGI we've seen in the Twilight movies and others. From the neck up, the makeup looks great. Below that, it looks like everyone's wearing form-fitting sweaters and mittens. But it looks better than a lot of the more expensive creature work we see in movies today, so the film at least deserves credit for that.
But otherwise, Wolves is a bad movie with a half-baked mythology and a set of character dynamics it can neither develop nor justify. In retrospect, a captivating lead actor may not have helped this movie very much. Then again, it certainly couldn't have hurt.