Wolf is a formulaic crime epic with one quasi-distinction that ultimately serves as a double-edged sword. Director Jim Taihuttu understands that his hero, Majid (Marwan Kenzari), a Moroccan parolee, immigrant, and petty thief looking to break into professional fighting in the Netherlands, is a self-destructive lout. The film doesn’t go in for the usual hopeless platitudes that typically lard macho stories of criminals who chafe under a rigged system. No, Majid squanders opportunity after opportunity to elevate himself socially—both legally and illegally—because he’s a brute with sensitive eyes who punches first and asks questions never. Majid is the embodiment of the person who can’t work for anybody: He’s routinely late to arrive at his day job at the flower warehouse in the morning, and he beats up the relatives of crime lords who would otherwise look to him for prestigious assignments robbing ATM machines or folding fights. It’s a miserable situation to be stuck in, but Taihuttu understands that Majid is the architect of his own prison.
This refreshing sense of perspective, which is actually borrowed from the similarly masochistic Raging Bull, also effectively drains this thriller of any suspense. With little sympathy for Majid, and no doubt as to where and how his tale will end, we’re left twiddling our thumbs in frustrated anticipation as Taihuttu very slowly parcels out narrative bread crumbs leading down the trail toward tragic inevitability. We follow Majid, a romantic lug-hothead stereotype, as he interacts with a variety of other laughably shopworn characters such as the stern, tediously disapproving father (Abdelkrim Bahloul), the loyal but uselessly meek mother (Baya Belal), and the angelic older brother (Nasrdin Dchar), who beatifically wastes away on a hospital cot, handily embodying the virtue that will forever elude Majid’s grasp. And that’s just the poor guy’s family, his coterie of friends and working associates, which include the ludicrously obviously untrustworthy best friend (Chems Eddine Amar), the gorgeous, treacherous whore (Bo Maerten), and the shady fight promoter (Cahit Ölmez), are equally indebted to types that have been around since noirs were in short pants and spotlighting actors such as James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson.
There are few cinematic experiences more purely pleasurable than watching a lean, mean formula picture that effectively trumps or revels in cliché, but Wolf isn’t lean or even all that mean. The rhythms are fatally off: Taihuttu devotes too much of his excessive running time to close-ups of Majid’s elegantly beat-up mug as he spars at the local gym or surveys the streets for girls and thieves. There’s little tension or momentum to the editing, which favors dime-store brooding, and there’s no element of the kind of live-wire craziness that could elevate the stature of these hoods in our minds. Even the black-and-white cinematography, which recalls both Raging Bull and The Naked City, somehow drags the film down. The images are often striking on their own, but they fail to cohere into a symphony of electrifying movement. Wolf ultimately leaves you feeling as if you’re stuck watching your cousin’s boring slideshow of his trip to Palookaville.