A guy turns up, he’s tough, he’s damaged and he will rise before emphatically falling. It’s the classic setup that so many crime dramas have sworn by over the years. From Little Caesar through to Pacino’s Scarface, the stories of guttersnipes playing Icarus are a veritable institution at this point. It’s a sub-genre that’s become well worn over the years, and Wolf certainly doesn’t feel the need to revolutionize it. That being said, its smorgasbord of well-picked influences and incredibly sharp screenplay make it a great watch nonetheless. Taking the old adage of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to heart, Wolf isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it still remains thoroughly compelling throughout.
When we first meet Majid (Marwan Kenzari), a first generation immigrant born to Moroccan parents in a greyed out Dutch suburb, he’s engaging a friend in a jovial back and forth in front of a shop window. Five minutes later, they’ve stolen a scooter. Majid constantly struggles with to draw a line between the domestic and the criminal, a struggle that gradually worsens as he finds himself increasingly embroiled in the thrills and spills of the criminal underworld.
Kenzari is a brilliant combination of charisma and brawn, bringing humanity to a character often profiled by his peers as little more than a lunk-headed thug. Much like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas or Pacino in Scarface, there’s an unnerving volatility to his presence in every scene. This is a guy who could explode at a moment’s notice (and often does), and it’s a credit to Kenzari’s performance that you remain sympathetic to Majid’s plight through to the very end. Sure, there are certain tricks the film pulls to load the dice in his favor – a sick brother, a snake-tongued best friend – but these never feel like audience manipulation, merely the daily travails of a guy being pulled in opposite directions
Much of the dialogue – even when translated into subtitles – is razor sharp, providing a pace and a rhythm to the banter-laden conversations that make up much of the film’s runtime. While two hours does feel a tad excessive for a movie that features a a pretty low ratio of talking to action, the sharp wit of the script and the genuinely interesting set of characters that writer-director Jim Taihuttu has assembled keep the drama compelling even at its slowest points. That said, when the film does pick up pace, there’s a sense of genuine uncertainty – this is a film packed with violent and erratic characters, and just about anyone could slip off the mortal coil at any moment.
The most immediate comparison to draw would be to Kassovitz’s La Haine, and with their monochrome shots of bleak tower blocks and working class malaise, the two films certainly share plenty of common ground. But that’s because it’s a tragically widespread situation – every western country on the planet has its down-and-outs, its cast-offs, the people who dream of escape but only have the vaguest idea of how to achieve it. But while La Haine emphasized class divides and the ludicrous system of social housing in France, Wolf is much more keen to delve into the backroom dealings of fast-talking, low-level mafiosi – as I said, very Goodfellas.
And I did occasionally catch myself playing a private game of Spot the Influence, but it was incredibly unfair of me to do so. You see, Wolf isn’t a shameless rip-off. It’s not a lazy rehash of familiar territory. No, it’s an incredibly well-made film put together by people keen to pay homage to the classics of the genre. It’s good-looking, smartly-written, terrifically acted and just varied enough to never step the wrong side of dull. The formula ain’t broke, and Wolf certainly feels no need to fix it, but this is good, solid movie-making graced with real heart and no shortage of talent.
It may spend more time paying homage to classics than finding its own voice, but Wolf picks and chooses its influences very well indeed.