2020, PG-13, 103 min. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Starring Milla Jovovich, Tony Jaa, T.I., Meagan Good, Diego Boneta, Josh Helman, Jin Au-Yeung, Ron Perlman, Jannik Schümann.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 18, 2020
No one will ever accuse Paul W.S. Anderson of making great cinema. What the master of video game adaptations makes are films that are fun, loud, and crazy. That's all. Subtlety isn't his thing, but that's often overrated. So, it makes absolute sense that Capcom (which grossed $1.245 billion globally off his adaptations of the Resident Evil franchise) would put their number two gaming series, the massively successful Monster Hunter series, in his more-than-capable hands.
At 18 titles in the series (and probably more by the time you finish reading this sentence), it's pretty clear that Capcom could expect another cinematic franchise out of this, so it's no surprise that Anderson paces himself in this introduction to the world of Lore, and its never-ending supply of nasty beasties, by starting on Earth before heading into the realm of the monsters. A team of U.S. Army Rangers, headed up by Captain Artemis (Jovovich, continuing her dominance as queen of sci-fi-action-horror), falls through a portal in a storm, right into a strange low-fantasy realm where everything is trying to kill them – and actually doing a pretty good job. Fortunately for Artemis, before she can be turned into a squishy snack she's rescued by the mysterious Hunter (Jaa), and they have to forge a begrudging alliance to survive.
If you think of Monster Hunter as an opening chapter, rather than a standalone film, its clunky structure makes more sense. The opening two-thirds involve Artemis and her team getting stranded on Lore, avoiding a Diablos (a giant gorilla/bull/crocodile hybrid) only to be picked off by a horde of spiderlike Nerscylla – both species familiar to fans of the game, and given plenty of impressive and creepy screen time here. The console outings can involve a lot of grinding, leading to their most off-putting trait – spending hours killing perfectly harmless herbivores (the early levels on the first games should probably be renamed Dinosaur Cow Slaughter). Anderson sidesteps that ethical morass by heading straight into the maw of the beast. Anyone can be stampeded, stomped, squished, thrown, or chomped at any time, but he is particularly skilled at dancing right up to the edge of PG-13 horror, without treading into the gory depths. Moreover, Anderson may have rebuilt the story and perspective, but there is no short-changing on the monsters. They are spectacular, and combined with the bloodless death toll there's a strand here running right back to Ray Harryhausen. Meanwhile, there's a lengthy fight sequence between Jaa and Jovovich that could have been pulled straight out of a 1980s martial arts comedy – or, more likely, a comedy spaghetti Western, with their overblown slapstick noises. Editor Doobie White, having worked with Anderson on Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, gets his conviction that no shot should last more than three seconds (there's a sequence of the duo walking across the desert that lasts all of four seconds, and it feels like Omar Sharif's entrance in Lawrence of Arabia). It's impossible to get bored.
See? Fun, as promised by the title. It's all peak Anderson, which sadly also means his inability to put a story together. Once Artemis and the Hunter overcome level two, that's when Monster Hunter decides to cram in another wave of disposable characters, Perlman in a questionable wig, and a massive exposition dump intended to wedge in all the world-building so assiduously avoided in the opening (Anderson's flair for coherence is solely visual, not narrative). It's the formless slog you've come to expect from Anderson, and if you're OK with that then Monster Hunter is definitely worth tracking down.