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WOLFMAN JACK

Nobody handed Jack Nicholson anything. He earned his place early on as one of Hollywood's big dogs, and twenty-five years later, he's not afraid to bare his fangs. For instance: A lesser force might not have gone anywhere near Wolf, recalling those campy werewolf flicks in which tormented Henry Hull or slavering Lon Chaney Jr. prowled the English countryside in sore need of a shave, tearing men and fair maidens to shreds before getting done in by a silver bullet. In the wrong hands, a Nineties update of such moonlit antics could surely wreck a career or two.

But Nicholson's gamble has paid off. Thanks to a sly, brilliant script, Mike Nichols's nimble direction and his own wild energies, the wily veteran manages to inject some well-timed humor into the subject of lycanthropy without sacrificing the classic terrors of yore. Not since the demon-crazed killer of The Shining has a Nicholson character run so gloriously amok or provided such startling moments of wit. It doesn't hurt, either, that his co-star is Michelle Pfeiffer, arguably the most versatile young actress in American films, and certainly the loveliest.

Thankfully, werewolf lore is more flexible than, say, the vampire stuff. You can do almost anything you want with the rules and no one will howl. When we meet Nicholson's Will Randall, we have no trouble accepting him for what he is--a smart but mild-mannered New York book editor one observer describes as "the last civilized man on earth." In the cutthroat business world, Will's a pushover, a tasteful, vaguely nineteenth-century type at the mercy of his publishing house's crass new owner (Christopher Plummer) and the back-stabbing yuppie (who else but James Spader?) angling for his job.

Ah, but once Will hits a big bad wolf with his Volvo in Vermont and gets bitten on the hand, things change. Nicholson's repertoire of leers, sneers and cackles remains one of the glories of American movie acting, and he gets to riff on some variations here. As wild wolf spirit overtakes Will Randall, Nicholson grows ever more lupine, feral and acute. He literally sniffs out trouble, begins hearing everything, bounds through the streets like a teenager. While his eyes glow yellow, the mating urge surges anew through his weary, fifty-something blood, and in a series of scenes that represent Jack Nicholson at his wicked best, Randall is transformed from Mr. Milquetoast into the mad dog of the New York publishing world. Rick Baker's inventive makeup ranges from subtle to scary.

Director Nichols's polished sense of humor, which reaches all the way from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Postcards From the Edge, is the ideal vessel for Nicholson, while the highly evolved screenplay--novelist Jim Harrison rewrote it four times; Nichols, Elaine May and Wesley Strick all added major revisions--provides a surfeit of clever plot twists and drop-dead one-liners. Muggers in the park and bullies at the office had better watch out for the new and improved Will Randall. Here, in part, is an urban revenge fantasy every shy clerk and downtrodden typist can love.

But all tales of men turning into monsters still turn on ambiguity--and the scent of tragedy. Even in the post-literate age, fearless basic instinct is compromised by the loss of intellect. Meanwhile, who is it that yet seeks to soothe the savage beast? Woman, of course. Pfeiffer's sultry Laura Alden is all Nineties will and defiance--the smart, hostile daughter of the evil boss. She will do anything to show up Daddy. At the same time, though, she is slowly captivated by a wild-eyed amnesiac who's twice her age, a sometimes lunatic who (just for warm-ups) attacks slabs of rare beefsteak with his bare hands but, because the gentleman still lurks in him, too, washes them down with some nice Bordeaux. Oh, that Will. Just can't help himself, especially after sunset.

Is it a jungle out there? Well, maybe. Nichols and the writers soft-pedal their subtext--which worries that art has been replaced by mere pop culture and that bestiality has beaten back civilization. In fact, this intelligent, funny, hugely entertaining take on the werewolf legend lets the audience decide for itself which kind of life holds more promise. While we're weighing the issue--and even if we're not--a finely tuned Jack Nicholson provides the kind of snarling, demonic good time we always hope for when his name goes up on the marquee. Actors come and go, but he's still leader of the pack.

 
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