Unscary 'Wolves' Neglects to Shapeshift Influences Enough

Directed by: David Hayter; Runtime: 91 minutes
Grade: C

Circumstances have been pretty dire for the werewolf genre over the past decade or so, forming a sparse pack of films that rarely, if ever, unleash more than merely tolerable thrills on the audience. During that type of downtime, it's unsurprising to see filmmakers attempt to push respective creature mythologies in unexpected directions; after all, it's within a gap in genre popularity that the likes of Let the Right One In and a few other unconventional vampire flicks came into being, created shortly before the modern vamp-romance thing took on a life of its own. A werewolf story from the mind of X-Men and Watchmen comic adapter David Hayter sounds like an opportunity for a divergent reinvigoration, perhaps fusing the conflicted pathos of a hero's discovery of their powers with creature-feature transformation suspense. Alas, in trying really, really hard to avoid shaping the small-town setting and love story of Wolves into a canines-'n-fur take on Twilight, Hayter's economical coming-of-age yarn ends up timidly coexisting in a dead zone between sobering fantasy-horror and youthful romantic drama.

Lucas Till, recognizable from the two most recent X-Men outings as the energy-channeling teen Havok, stars as a rural football stud, Cayden, who's undergoing a few physical and emotional changes that aren't so readily chalked up to puberty. Along with a massive uptick in volatility on the field, he's also experiencing passionate mood swings, leading to a few irredeemable -- and fatal -- incidents that drive him away from home and on the road. Eventually, Cayden stumbles into a semi-sympathetic, knowledgeable stranger (John Pyper-Ferguson) who sniffs out his true self, then points him in the direction of a place accepting of his burden: Lupine Ridge. I know, I know. As soon as Cayden rolls into the town, he's met with a less than warm reception from the locals, save only a few: Angel (Merrit Patterson), a gorgeous owner of the local bar with deep ties to Lupine Ridge, and John (Stephen McHattie), a sharpshooting local farmer. Cayden decides to stick around due to his lack of living prospects, while the town's secrets gradually come to the surface the longer he's there ... and the more he draws the attention of Connor (given sassy charisma by Jason Momoa), an intimidating longstanding citizen with significant pull in the area.

Matching certain expectations of writer/director Hayter, the tone at the beginning of Wolves operates more like the troubled origin story for a superhero -- think Rogue's character arc in the first X-Men -- than the setting for a calculated horror film. He guides Cayden through the discovery of his gifts and curses as a young, compassionate werewolf fighting against his primal urges, building sympathy for the frightened kid as he careens from location to location with narration filling in the gaps of his situation. Lucas Till repurposes the effortlessly conflicted, malleable demeanor he delivered in X-Men: First Class for Cayden, with dashes of smolder laced throughout his timid charisma that largely overcome his one-note temperament. Despite some cliche plotting built around the teen's initial problems back home, the angle Hayter takes with the werewolf premise -- recalling bits-'n-pieces from The Howling and Teen Wolf -- appears at first as if it could work, assuming the film eventually works Till into a rush of feral action as his own kind of shape-shifting mutant.

Once Cayden settles into the Lupine Ridge community, Wolves starts to grow a bit ... hairy, both literally and figuratively. Granted, Hayter's 90-minute film doesn't have the luxury of time to establish much of a mythology behind the town's sordid history -- unlike, say, Mystic Falls from Vampire Diaries -- but that wouldn't be a problem had the story not relied so much on its obscure lineage to propel it forward. Like this, Wolves swiftly establishes a token safe-zone for those like Cayden that's built on bizarre pack mentalities, power struggles, and archaic rituals, amounting to little more than a manufactured setting for the noble young werewolf to discover the root of his bloodline and save a damsel in distress. Ancient documents and fancy pipes being smoked by wolves in human clothing aren't enough to enrich the personality of the unimaginatively-titled Lupine Ridge, nor is the banal romantic link between its fresh-faced stranger and the town's beholden princess, flirting with the same brand of animal-urge allegorical clumsiness of a certain other horror-romance property before subverting it.

While the action does eventually pick up in Wolves as anticipated, coinciding with an uptick in fully-transformed werewolves sorely missed throughout the preceding events, very little of it all delivers enough grittiness to offset the roundabout beastly melodrama. Featuring unintimidating wolf designs that'd probably get shrugged off at someone's local haunted house, there's just barely enough of an edge behind Hayter's visceral pursuits to begrudgingly earn an R-rating, where a few slashed throats and impaled torsos muster little in the way of chills throughout its busy climax. In place of genuine terror lies a series of threadbare plot twists and revelations designed to enrich Cayden's origin, conveniently avoided and changeable details that only serve to warp his path to catharsis instead of authentically deepen his character. Thing is, neither Cayden nor Lupine Ridge's back-story are compelling enough to justify how Wolves breaks away from traditional horror-film pursuits, which results in a bunch of half-concealed influences thrown together without really figuring out what breed of flick it needs to be.

'Vice' A Glitchy Replicant of Past Theme Park, Robot Turmoil

Directed by: Brian A. Miller; Runtime: 96 minutes
Grade: D

With advancements in technology and the perseverance of immersive entertainment (videogames, live-action role-playing), Michael Crichton's idea for Westworld -- realistic environments populated with lifelike robots designed for rules-free chaos for those with the financial means -- seems closer to feasible in our not-so-distant future than depicted in the '70s sci-fi classic. Despite nagging concerns over financial viability or legal restrictions, that need for a break from the mundane constrictions of everyday life has materialized in similar, evolving higher-concept films over the years, from the covert thrill-seeking experience of The Game to the lawless bedlam of The Purge. Vice, the latest from B-movie director Brian A. Miller, takes a more direct approach to updating the idea, creating a metropolitan paradise full of realistic humanoid robots who can be solicited, assaulted, and killed without negative repercussions. Any interest generated by Vice's potential fades inside cumbersome plotting and drab performances, however, with nothing new to say and only cursory interest in both the citizens maneuvering through the resort and the puppet master making it a reality.

It's odd to see Bruce Willis in a role quite as nondescript as Julian Michaels, the stoic creator and overseer behind the Vice resort: a place where "artificials" replicate the thoughts, emotions, and reactions of actual people while human patrons have their way with them without any tangible rules. His presence adds little to the authoritative events that transpire underneath his character's watch, sparked by one of the artificial intelligences, Kelly (Ambyr Childers), a bartender programmed with aspirations to leave the city for dramatic effect, who starts to have mental flashes and dreams about events that never happened to her. Turns out, they're fragments of memories from the previous interactions she's had with Vice's guests that have been erased by engineers, purged with every reset of her predestined character arc. Eventually, she earns the attention of a local police detective, Roy Todeski (Thomas Jane), who's been hell-bent on shutting down Vice for some time, sparking a connection of events hinged on Kelly's self-awareness ... and Julian's diligence in keeping his creations in line and open for business.

In place of ramshackle saloons and medieval dining halls emphasizing the whimsy of the scenario, Vice duplicates the near-future setting of a contemporary, mid-tier waterfront city one might find anywhere throughout North America, studded with high-class bars, dance clubs, banks to rob and brothels to frequent. It's relatively mundane, but that's part of the point: wealthy patrons do the things in an everyday environment they're not able to do in their everyday environment, disregarding laws and morality to work out their deepest, darkest kinks. Director Miller manages to disguise the film's micro-budget by emphasizing moody lighting and lingering on frequent Dutch angles that capture the resort's livelier activities, including a few gunfights, foot chases ... and, uh, other lascivious pursuits. This mild visual style can't cover up the script's Swiss-cheese retooling of a familiar concept, though, where moments focused on Bruce Willis vacantly laboring over computer screens and Thomas Jane's awkwardly roguish sleuthing eat up the time sorely needed to flesh out its more intriguing particulars.

That's because Vice ends up being more concerned with Kelly's burgeoning self-awareness than with the resort itself, reducing the logistics to how the place operates -- legality, sustainability, technology -- to hastily-addressed and tedious background noise with little purpose beyond adding immediacy to her awakening. Instead of a malfunctioning gunslinger gone rogue due to faulty programming, this story focuses on an unremarkable, tormented robo-citizen of Vice discovering her reason for being, skewing more towards rote science-fiction and moral thought-exercise as it dissects her memory wipes and Julian's machinations in maintaining control. With the right personality, this flip in focus could've worked; however, Kelly ends up being exceptionally one-dimensional, partially by design but also because of Ambyr Childers' static performance. Her characterization gets perked up a bit by a mysterious stranger, Bryan Greenberg's Evan, with intimate knowledge of her origin and programming, but there's no getting around the fundamental issues of this aloof android being in the spotlight while surrounded by a loosely-realized clone of a setting.

Little of that really matters once Vice boots up its core purpose: a formulaic cat-and-mouse chase between a synthetic creation and the might of her stony creator's forces, sporadically interrupted by the antics of a superfluous detective. Consequently, the second half of Miller's film leaks into an unconvincing jumble of frivolous logic and flat expressiveness, driven by inept militaristic forces and fickle technology behind the artificials' memories and tracking devices. Those problems all converge at a particular moment where Kelly's given the opportunity to embrace her synthetic capabilities or reject it in quasi-rebellion of her machine self, one that would've resonated stronger had she been a more tangible (and consistent) persona. Whatever comments about fantasy and reality that the film might convey, about clutching onto the truths of one's existence, they're squandered in the messiness of the plot to the end, futily ping-ponging between references to popular sci-fi bits in hopes of overwriting the malfunctions in its system.

Reeves Ignites Gritty, Self-Aware Vengeance in 'John Wick'

Directed by: Chad Stahelski and David Leitch; Runtime: 101 minutes
Grade: A-

47 Ronin ended up being a disappointment for numerous reasons, but one of the biggest was the botched return to action for Keanu Reeves, whose ho-hum performance as a thwarted samurai gets lost in a mess of computer-generated waywardness and script meddling. His brand of earnest stoicism has frequently worked to his advantage in other roles at various points in his career, yet he's struggled to find the right niche for his talent over the past ten or so years. Then, Man of Tai Chi emerged on the scene trumpeting his enthusiasm for the B-movie and martial-arts spectrum, including a performance from himself as a mysterious and intimidating underground player with fighting skills. Turns out, Reeves didn't need the scope and grandeur of another Hollywood-budget franchise (another Matrix, if you will) to mount his cinematic riposte, but the smaller-scale, hard-hitting energy of tailored combat and no-nonsense gunfire. That's where John Wick enters the picture.

After viewing the initial trailer for the directing debut of stunt designers/coordinators Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, there's an immediate hook that already makes one grin at the film's premise, where a trained killer sets out for revenge against the home invaders who killed his dog. Now, clearly, there's more to it than that: that skilled assassin once belonged to an organized crime ring and removed himself from it after falling in love with his wife (Bridgette Moynahan), to which the dog served as a way of soothing the pain after her death. Therefore, the dog's demise -- which was caused by the son, Iosef (Alfie Allen), of one of the organization's key players, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) -- signifies more than just a small spark of revenge in John's eyes, but a call back to the world he abandoned for something personal. Yet, the playful idea that an ex-assassin's tearing through the underworld based on vengeance for his dog's murder carries through the rest of the story, even playfully referenced throughout ... though it's far from a joking matter.

The script from B-movie action writer Derek Kolstad (One in the Chamber; The Package) concentrates on telling an empathetic story of John Wick's "retirement" at first, succeeding more than expected from the premise. It makes you really feel for Wick's anguish and the unwanted solace that his new companion offered before a very carefully-shot death scene, legitimately fueling his resolve to enter back into the world through an unpretentiously heartbreaking backstory. Once he's drawn back in, Kolstead's humor and world-building take over, crafting an eccentric network of espionage that's different from the typical stiff cloak-and-dagger assassin material, developing a stylish outlook on currency, safe spots, and guidelines. See, everybody knows John Wick, and not in a fearful kind of way: entering old haunts, especially the regulated Continental hotel, and reaching out to old contacts works almost like a fond reunion than a bunch of people brushing elbows with the boogeyman, enriching John Wick's character through their sympathy and esteem while proving that he wasn't exactly a heartless machine in his previous life, despite his lethal reputation.

That reputation is justified, though, observed in Wick's first combat situation after being out of the game for a while. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch make it abundantly clear that they aren't interested in flashy clouds of missed bullets and elaborate martial-arts choreography filled with blocked punches and kicks, instead emphasizing precise brutality through their quasi-realistic grasp on violence. The resulting action in John Wick is sharp and bloody, a fusion of strategic grappling in the vein of judo and jiu-jitsu with gunplay that purposefully interweaves with Wick's maneuvers, with Keanu Reeves conducting the bulk of the physical work himself. The accomplishments of the action don't begin and end with the violence, either: Stahelski and Leitch also display an impeccable eye for the geography of highly-stylized locations, paired with judicious-yet-colorful cinematography that maintains a lucid viewpoint on the ramifications of what's going on. A fierce blue-tinted scene in an elaborate nightclub, powered by a pair of sublime electronic musical tracks and clear admiration for the work of John Woo, alone cements the film's shrewdness as a pure action film.

The calculated disposition of an assassin with a broken heart turns out to be an excellent vessel for Keanu Reeves' range, playing to his strengths with a character who exhibits restrained emotionality and picks and chooses his words very carefully. Wick's stoicism doesn't drag the film's personality down, though: his, uh, colleagues elevate the tempo with well-drawn and capricious characteristics, from Adrianne Palicki's formidable poise as Ms. Perkins to Willem Dafoe's enigmatic camaraderie as Marcus. Nothing's really cut and dry among them, not even with Wick's nemesis and ex-employer, Viggo, whom The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Michael Nyqvist filters a healthy amount of idiosyncrasy through his recital of Russian limericks and his prevalent, almost sympathetic fear of the ex-assassin. Their enigmatic motives and crossings over the lines of honor end up shaping the atmosphere more than the anti-hero's own actions, as Wick's path towards the undeniably unlikable Iosef transforms into an elaborate string of responses to how the criminal underworld corrects any faults in its ecosystem.

Style certainly triumphs over substance in John Wick, sure, and it's not completely devoid of action-movie cliches; a handful of questionable missed bullets and dubious Bond villain-esque stalls in executing plans keep the plot alive longer than it should, which stand out more given the dogged pragmatism Chad Stahelski and David Leitch telegraph everywhere else. The meticulousness and general panache crafted from start to finish far exceed those misgivings, however, where the straightforward poeticism behind Wick's story -- smartly encapsulated in an affecting framing device -- reaches a full-throttle and cathartic conclusion for his tormented disposition. Whether this marks a new renaissance in Keanu Reeves' career remains to be seen, but it goes to show that his modest demeanor and enthusiasm for the genre can still thrive with the right kind of role throttling him forward, amounting to one of the sharpest and winsome action films to emerge over the past couple of years.