3 out of 5 stars

Paul W.S Anderson is committed to making a certain brand of genre movie, best exemplified by the Resident Evil (2002-2016) saga, starring his wife and muse Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element). His filmography reads like a rundown of a 14-year-old boy’s favourite franchises; a cocktail of sci-fi action flicks mostly adapting or inspired by popular IP, like Mortal Kombat (1995), Alien vs. Predator (2004), the aforementioned Resident Evil’s (of which he wrote all six and directed four), The Three Musketeers (with added steampunk blimps of course), and a remake of Death Race. Originality isn’t his forte. Even his best and most original effort, Event Horizon (1997), essentially throws Alien (1979), The Shining (1980) and Hellraiser (1987) into a blender. But there’s certainly an audience for PWSA’s low-bar thrills, using decent $40-80M budgets to steamroller over the cracks.

Monster Hunter reunites PWSA with the game-to-movie adaptation, which has served him well since Mortal Kombat and the Resident Evil sextet (that grossed a cumulative $1.2BN let’s not forget). The Monster Hunter series is less popular in the west than the east, which is why studios like Japan’s Toho and China’s Tencent got involved and insisted on local talent being added to the cast. That explains why Thai martial artist Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak) is the second lead.

US Army Ranger Captain Artemis (Jovovich) and her team of UN soldiers are searching for a missing squad in the desert when a mysterious storm rushes on their location, zapping them to a desert planet (shades of Stargate). Before they can get their bearings, they’re attacked by a burrowing ‘Diablos’ monster, only narrowly finding safety inside a cave (shades of Tremors), until an injured Artemis is left for dead and meets a local Hunter (Jaa) who helps her understand what’s going on. And it seems the only way back home is to reach the distant Sky Tower (shades of The Dark Tower), which means traversing a dangerous land full of nocturnal beasts (shades of Pitch Black).

I haven’t played a single Monster Hunter game since the first was released in 2004, so can’t say how much of this is a faithful translation of the source material and what’s just PWSA again militarising a concept and insisting his own wife plays an original character as the lead. But cursory research suggests all the stranger elements of Monster Hunter, which involves dune-sailing pirate ships and a hirsute warrior nicknamed the Admiral (Ron Perlman), are more indicative of the games, while adding a team of Aliens-style soldiers led by a Ripley-styled female s all PWSA’s doing. Unsurprising really.

The good news is that Monster Hunter delivers what its target audience demand from a film with that title (there’s lots of monsters and hunting). And the deviations from the source material don’t seem as egregious as changes made to the Resident Evil franchise, which only had a passing resemblance to the plot of the games. It’s a shame instances of real imagination are so lacking, but if you want to see Milla Jovovich punching and kicking Tony Jaa, eventually learning to wield flaming weapons and slaughter enormous dragon beasts, Monster Hunter delivers.

Maybe this is why PWSA is more successful than most at adapting video games to the big-screen, as he has no deep interest in doing anything more than recycle the cool ideas and add the fun designs of his favourite games into VFX-heavy movies. And while people can usually pick fault at how he chooses to adapt things, Monster Hunter isn’t a beloved franchise in the same way Alien, Predator (1987), and Resident Evil were before he delved into them.

All we really want from this movie is a few hours of monster-slaying action and creative set-pieces, and there’s just about enough of that to satisfy. And it’s thankfully a movie that does get more entertaining as it goes along, ending in an undeniably exciting sequence involving a gigantic wyvern destroying military aircraft. It’s the heady stuff of Syfy Original Movies, but with $60M worth of money to make it look good. And while many of the creature designs evoke Pacific Rim (2013) kaiju, one has to applaud PWSA’s decision to rarely obscure the monsters with darkness or rain. If you want bright daylight sequences with every tooth and claw up for scrutiny, Monster Hunter won’t disappoint.

The score is also memorable, being mostly synth-driven and subconsciously reminding you of 1980s fantasy epics that could only have dreamed of looking this believable on camera. Paul Haslinger wrote the music, having worked on a few of PWSA’s movies in the past, and Monster Hunter certainly has a quality that reminds you he was once part of Tangerine Dream.

Naturally, the downsides involve paper-thin characterisations and an underdeveloped arc for Jovovich’s heroine—who goes from gun-toting to axe-wielding. There are fun moments in the middle when she meets the native Hunter, who doesn’t speak any English, but inevitably PWSA has little interest in slowing things for a brief remake of Enemy Mine (1985). And that’s a shame, because the moments when Artemis and the Hunter are trying to communicate, having got off on the wrong foot, are some of the movie’s best. I love a monster brawl as much as the next man, but it does help if you care about the humans doing the monster hunting.

Monster Hunter came out during the COVID-19 pandemic as one of the few movies to risk a theatrical release around Christmas, although it was primarily aimed at the Chinese market in the hopes that country’s investment in the project would help it turn a profit without having to worry about the US and Europe too much. It ended up grossing $28M worldwide, so didn’t make its money back, and matters weren’t helped by the fact China quickly removed it from cinemas over the backlash to a racist joke. It’s ironic that more care with the script might have ensured Monster Hunter was a commercial success, even during a pandemic, and has made the prospect of sequels more likely.

What’s PWSA’s next move? I guess it depends what he’s downloaded on PlayStation 5.

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Cast & Crew

director: Paul W.S Anderson.
writer: Paul W.S Anderson (based on the Capcom video games created by Kaname Fujioka).
starring: Milla Jovovich, Tony Jaa, Tip ‘T.I’ Harris, Meagan Good, Diego Boneta, Josh Helman, Jin Au-Yeung & Ron Perlman.