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Jack's Back

Nicholson makes Wolf savage fun

Wolf was preceded by enough bad vibes to set me on my guard. Early press releases stated -- yikes! -- that Jack Nicholson's character becomes "drawn deeper into the mystical feral spirit of the wolf," and screenwriter Jim Harrison explained that he got the idea for the film from a mixture of his "own brush with lycanthropy" and the teachings of Michel Foucault.

Not that I wanted Wolf to fail. The world needs all the good werewolf stories it can get, but since The Howling, with its canny John Sayles script, no one has gotten it right. Not until Wolf, at any rate, which comes close enough to win a cigar.

Wolf announces its pleasingly retro strategy in its opening scene. Nicholson's character, Will Randall, is driving through a cold New England night. We know nothing about Randall, not his name, nor his status as soon-to-be demoted editor at a New York publisher, so the psychology of the scene is simple: he's just trying to see out of his frosted-over window. And then he hits a wolf in the road.

When Randall gets out to see what he's done, the movie offers a good old-fashioned scare before moving us into New York, where Randall, his publishing house recently swallowed by a conglomerate, is about to watch timidly as his weasel of an assistant (James Spader) takes his job. Then "the feral spirit of the wolf" kicks in, and Randall becomes a really tough negotiator.

This is where the story becomes contemporary, and where most modern horror films founder. But Wolf thrives because it is first grounded in convention, and because Nicholson has so much fun as a man who suddenly regains his appetite, and along with it his senses -- in both meanings of the word.

Nicholson looks 20 years younger here, as young as his character feels, and he's regained his instincts, which had eroded after being the best in the business. In Wolf, when he cocks his eyebrow, the gesture isn't a tic or a tired mannerism; instead, it's connected to his character's suddenly devilish inner life, as is his happy brute's grin when he tells Michelle Pfeiffer's character, Laura, to add some bacon to his breakfast.

Once Nicholson's transformation is complete, making him into a monster, the movie loses some of its steam, largely because it never makes Laura's character integral. Laura simply isn't written at Randall's level, so when the two are supposed to be finally joined for eternity, the film collapses into murk.

But not before giving us our money's worth. The story isn't deep, but even when it indulged in hardcore hokum or the foolishness of the climactic fight scene, I was still engaged.

-- David Theis

Wolf.
Directed by Mike Nichols. With Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader and Christopher Plummer.

Rated R.
125 minutes.

 
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