Project Wolf Hunting (2023)

Often, when movie buffs say “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” they’re lamenting the loss of movie-star vehicles, serious dramas for adults, or mainstream movies that include any visual depiction of sex.  The “They don’t make ’em like they used to” complaint could extend to much trashier tropes & genres that have disappeared from American multiplexes in the past few decades, though, and it occurred to me while watching the Korean gore fest Project Wolf Hunting.  There is no time in history when a major American studio would have produced a film as grotesquely violent as Project Wolf Hunting for wide theatrical release, but it still plays like a nostalgic throwback to the blockbuster days of 1990s Hollywood.  Specifically, it’s a revival of the preposterous prison thrillers of that era, titles like Con Air, The Rock, Death Warrant, Ricochet, and Alien³.  Back when movies used to be led by action stars instead of IP brands, there was a wave of grimy, idiotic thrillers set in futuristic superprisons, which repentant or wrongfully convicted dirtbags played by Jean Claude Van Damme or Nicolas Cage would have to escape via brute lone-wolf strength & communal riots.  Project Wolf Hunting wistfully calls back to that era in its chaotic “story” of prisoner cargo ship mutiny, but it also triples down on the genre’s hyperviolence with tons more blood & viscera than all its previous titles combined.  Tons.  It’s an exciting change until it’s a numbing one, and by the end I would have much rather returned to the dinky charm of its Bruckheimer Era predecessors than spend another minute slipping around in its red-dyed corn syrup slop.  They just don’t make over-the-top prison thrillers like they used to, and apparently they never will again.

It appears that even the team behind Project Wolf Hunting knows that the nonstop hyperviolence of its cargo ship prison break can be numbingly monotonous, since it only plays the scenario straight for its opening hour.  The premise starts simple enough, with a ludicrous prisoner-exchange transport returning all of Korea’s cruelest, most dangerous criminals from their Philippines hiding place for trial & punishment via one lone, vulnerable cargo ship.  Of course, their criminal buddies on the outside seize the opportunity to start a jail-break riot on the ship, and most of the first hour is nonstop slaughter of cops & prison guards at the receiving end of bullets & blades.  Just as the movie’s threatening to tire itself out halfway into its runtime, the prisoners accidentally free a new flavor of violent threat they didn’t know was being transported in tandem: a Frankensteined supersoldier that has been kept “alive” via sci-fi superdrugs since Japanese experiments in World War II.  The zombie monster among them has stapled-shut eyes, a mouth full of maggots, and a bottomless appetite for “extreme & indiscriminate violence.”  He’s an impossible intrusion into what starts as a fairly pedestrian prison break thriller, so you’d think he’d change the film’s rhythms & trajectory in an exciting way.  Not really.  All the invincible Frankenmonster really does as a late addition to the party is allow the bloodbath to continue after practically all the cops have been destroyed, giving the prisoners a single target to focus their fists, knives, and bullets on, now to their own peril.  The practical gore and close-quarters combat is impressively staged throughout, with all victims & villains spraying the supercharged blood geysers familiar to vintage martial arts films like Lady Snowblood (and their modern homages like Kill Bill).  Whether they’re impressive enough to justify two consecutive hours of “extreme & indiscriminate violence” is up for debate.

The #1 thing that would’ve made me more enthusiastic about Project Wolf Hunting is if it were made when I was still a teenage gore hound.  The #2 thing is if it had a more charismatic action-hero lead.  This is the kind of large ensemble-cast action thriller where the main objective is to pack the cargo ship with as many high-pressure blood bags as possible without bothering to assign any one of them much of a distinctive personality.  The range between the most sensitive, pensive criminal on the ship and the scariest, most violent one is pretty wide, and no one really matters between those two extremes outside the brutal novelty of their individual kill scenes.  Because they’re all professional scumbags & sociopaths, they don’t even have much motivation to distinguish personalities amongst each other.  In the aggro parlance of the film, everyone is either an “asshole”, a “bastard,” a “motherfucker”, or a “piece of shit” – all unified in their collective need to “shut the fuck up.”  I always find that kind of shouted-expletive dialogue to be the telltale sign of a weak screenplay, but I also don’t know how much that matters in this particular instance.  Project Wolf Hunting‘s greatest assets are its value as a revival of the preposterous prison thriller genre and its eagerness to overwhelm the audience with bone-crunching gore.  As someone with a baseline affection for any monster movie with a high-concept gimmick premise, I’m willing to overlook a lot of its narrative shortcomings to enjoy its practical-effects violence.  It’s a pretty good movie in that context.  All it really needed to be a great one was a charismatic action star to help anchor the audience amidst the sprawling mayhem.  Unfortunately, they don’t really make those anymore.

-Brandon Ledet

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