By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Milla Jovovich, Tony Jaa and Ron Perlman
Written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
When the Toho logo appears on screen at the beginning of MONSTER HUNTER, backed by gigantic growling, it can only raise high expectations among certain audiences for the creature bash to come. Unfortunately, the movie instead essentially becomes a de facto RESIDENT EVIL sequel, following THE (not really) FINAL CHAPTER: Writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson helming a video-game adaptation in which star Milla Jovovich battles unearthly beings alongside a multiculti supporting cast given absolutely nothing resembling characters to play.
Despite what the promo material suggests, Jovovich’s Captain Artemis is not the Monster Hunter; he’s played by martial arts superstar Tony Jaa, and we meet him in the opening scene set in “The New World,” on a sailing ship bounding across a desert instead of the sea, its Admiral played by Ron Perlman with crazy hair. An attack by an enormous creature sends the Hunter overboard…and then we’re taken to “Our World” and a United Nations Joint Security Operations squad headed by Jovovich’s Captain Artemis. They’re on a mission through a territory identified only by longitude and latitude coordinates (for those in the audience who might be experts in such things), and the movie wastes no time establishing any of them as people. No sooner have we learned that Artemis is (in her words) “a ranger, not an archaeologist” and, um, one of the guys likes to listen to George Jones than a freaky sandstorm/lightning storm transports them to “The New World,” where they soon encounter its monstrous denizens.
These elaborately detailed beasties are given more definition than the soldiers, whose dialogue doesn’t run any deeper or more complex than “What was that thing?” and “Come on, we have to go!” and “We do what we do best. We fight and we survive.” Apparently they’re not very good at that either, since soon only Artemis is left, and is forced into an uneasy alliance with the Hunter in order to stay alive and attempt a return home. Part of the tension between them arises from the fact that he doesn’t speak English, which is a pointless gimmick because he’s given nothing in the way of meaningful backstory. Wouldn’t it have been more dramatic and interesting if he and Artemis had been able to converse, get to know each other, plan meaningful strategy and reveal idiosyncrasies and histories?
Nah, this is just supposed to be a mindless-fun monster bash, which would be fine except that the creatures aren’t interesting either, or terribly original. The main titan the duo must defeat is so overdesigned it suggests a living concept sketch rather than a flesh-and-blood being, other key attackers are giant scuttling bugs like the ones in STARSHIP TROOPERS that cocoon victims like the xenomorphs in the ALIEN saga (with one briefly freed guy complaining about “pain in my chest” before the inevitable result) and later, there’s a monstrous stampede straight out of Peter Jackson’s KING KONG. The latter occurs after Artemis and the Hunter make their way to an out-of-nowhere oasis and encounter the Admiral and his crew, allowing the movie to present a second band of adventurers who are given nothing of interest to do or say. At least Perlman gets to rattle off the minimal amount of exposition about alternate worlds required to motivate the final-act action, but the most attention-getting character in his band is a meowing humanoid cat chef, whose presence is so out of tone with the rest of the film that even non-devotees of the source game will recognize it as fan service.
Throughout its 103 minutes (10 of which are end credits), MONSTER HUNTER never bothers to build an actual mythology; it’s just a bunch of things happening, a few of which elicit a little surface excitement but none of which engage any viewer involvement, since we’re given no reason to care about anyone involved. The dependable Jovovich goes through the movie with the steely resolve of someone who knows she’s going to make it to the end (not surprising, given RE: THE FINAL CHAPTER’s cheat of an ending), while the highly talented Jaa is given little opportunity to demonstrate his charisma or amazing action skills. This is a pair you would think could be trusted to perform a knockout fight scene, but as usual, their big brawl is rendered in a flurry of choppy edits that counterproductively drain the excitement from it. And speaking, as we were a couple of sentences ago, of cheat endings, MONSTER HUNTER doesn’t actually have an ending; it just stops in the middle of the buildup to another big battle. Clearly, the intention is for this to launch a film series of its own, but odds are that the final chapter of the MONSTER HUNTER franchise will be its first one.
MONSTER HUNTER is now playing in cinemas.