When it comes to cramming your other half into the lion’s share of your filmography it’s frankly amazing that Paul W.S. Anderson doesn’t get more shit than he does – I mean Rob Zombie gets roasted for it all the damn time and yet Anderson has currently gotten away with casting alpha female and wife to his children Mila Jovovich in no less than five of his previous directorial projects with 2020’s videogame adaptation Monster Hunter bringing the amount to an even six.
But then, Anderson isn’t exactly a guy known for stepping out of his comfort zone and this latest offering stacks alongside his copious entries in the Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil series as yet another another cinematic retelling of another bout of super popular pixel bashing – but even though I’ve been remarkably harsh on the dude in the past (regardless of my opinions however, Event Horizon fucking rules), has this videogame veteran actually got it in him to actually suprise a viewer who usually treats most of his filmography like the cinematic equivalent of invasive dental work?
While investigating the disappearance of an earlier patrol in the desert, Captain Artemis and her squad of stock character soldiers find themselves caught up in a suspiciously blue sand storm that comes with sparkly lightning that relocates them to a whole other world at no extra charge. While these guys struggle to get their bearings, the arrival of a bloody great horned monster, who tunnels under the sand like giant, crusty shark, helps sort out the men from the boys buy rudely killing anything in it’s path. Things then rapidly get increasingly more FUBAR when the survivors take refuge in some rocks only to be set upon by legions of spikey, spider creatures with Artemis being the only survivor but standing as a sole plus point in an epically shitty day is the small but lethal form of The Hunter, a warrior who has become separated from the shipmates of his sand sailing craft. Leaping tirelessly from rock to rock like he has pure Monster energy drink flowing through his veins and wielding an arsenal of absurdly oversized weapons, both Artemis and he eventually build up an uneasy alliance, escape the spiders and try to cook up a plan to take out the vast burrowing monster that The Hunter describes in his native tongue as having the name Diablos.
As they prepare to go head to horn with a creature so large it could use them as a suppository, a whole new world is about to lay itself before the unprepared Captain, a world of monsters and ways of jumping between worlds that just might mean that she has a real shot at getting home – however, even if they succeed in taking down Diablos, there’s more monsters where he came from….
As I mentioned before, I’m hardly the most supportive person of Paul W.S. Anderson and the frequent stream of CGI infused gack, but even I have to admit this is his best film in yonks. At first you may think that the 180 degree handbrake turn in my thinking must be because my love of giant, rampaging monsters has clouded my vision, but in actuality, despite some of Anderson’s typically choppy bad habits like nonsensical editing and the fact that the man still handles exposition as deftly as a seal dealing cards, the movie has some surprisingly savvy filmmaking choices that not only make for some deft story telling,but also is smart enough to tailor make the movie so it plays to the strengths of everyone involved, the director included.
Whereas the first third of the movie deals with your basic set of grunts who speak like they just watched James Cameron’s Aliens yesterday, the middle section of the movie is by far the most interesting and strips the whole thing back to a two hander between Tony Jaa and Mila Jovovich as their characters – separated by wildly different dialects, but bonded by the overwhelming desire to not go out as the mushy goo between a Kaiju’s toes – work together. This forces them to not only overcome any spectacularly craggy beastie that stomps or scuttled into frame, but it also allows Jaa to circumvent the language barrier by not even trying and Jovovich by having her rely more on her physical stuff than her thespian skills.
The result is suprisingly effective and it also helps that Anderson manages to hold fire on previous bad habits by not turning the thing into one huge, overwhelming dumping ground for some over complicated video game backstory – ultimately delivered by Ron Pearlman in the final third in a Dragon Ball Z wig that makes him look like a barbarian Rod Stewart.
The monster stuff itself is pretty good with cool creature designs and action sequences smartly mimic the form of the early levels of a video game where an underpowered and novice Artemis has to slog away at a lesser but deadly foe (giant spiders) to graduate to the bigger and badder beasts like Diablos and the spicy breathed wyvern Rathalos. Even though Anderson doesn’t exactly differentiate between the monster scraps much (he uses the same stet up where people inside a vehicle are tossed around as it’s hurled across the landscape at least 4 times) they’re still worth seeing on the big screen and anyone who thinks the notion of a dragon fighting modern military tech has been mostly abandoned by Hollywood since 2002’s Reign Of Fire will be nicely sated.
By the end of the film, most of Paul Anderson’s usual quirks have come back in to play with lazy last minute revelations, annoying cliff hanger endings and frustrating fan service all full in effect (I personally need more random chef cat-person in my life and I dont care who knows it), but by then it’s not enough to spoil the fact that Monster Hunter is his best film in ages.
But is it a good adaptation of the Capcom videogame? Well, in all honesty I’ve no idea as I’ve never played it, but then if I’m telling the truth, accuracy to a game I know nothing about comes distant second to a movie that manages to hold my attention beyond the fact that it has a bit where someone shoots a giant monster in the face with a rocket launcher.
While hardly a towering apex predator of videogame adaptations, Monster Hunter still proves to be a refreshingly simple pleasure in in a genre infamous for it’s missed opportunities.