“I hated it”, I whispered over to my colleague as the credits rolled on the mind-numbingly tepid Dylan Dog: Dead of Night – except that it wasn’t true, and I knew it half a second after the words rolled off my tongue. The truth is, I’m not sure such a strong reaction would even be possible after watching a film as inconsequential as this tedious would-be franchise-starter. After all, how can you hate something that hardly even exists to begin with?
Based on the bestselling Italian comic book series created by Tiziano Sclavi, Dead of Night was helmed by Kevin Munroe, whose sole feature directing credit previously was 2007’s TMNT, the belated CG-animated continuation of the early ‘90s Ninja Turtles franchise. That film garnered surprisingly strong box-office but weak reviews, topping out at a relatively meager 34% on Rotten Tomatoes. I admittedly haven’t seen it, and based on Munroe’s altogether toothless second effort I probably won’t be Netflixing it anytime soon.
For those not familiar with the comic book, the Dylan Dog series posits a world in which supernatural creatures live more or less peacefully (and secretly) amongst the human population. The quirky title character, based out of a cluttered and seedy London home/office and with the stated title of “nightmare investigator”, is a detective-for-hire who’s an expert at investigating crimes committed by vampires, werewolves, and other ghouls of the night. Acting as his “Watson” is a Groucho Marx doppelganger who mainly functions as the punny comic relief (though in English-language editions the character’s name is changed from “Groucho” to “Felix” and his appearance significantly altered due to rights issues with Marx’s estate in the U.S.).
The film version, relocated from London to New Orleans, opens with a rather awkwardly-staged prologue set in a stately manor, during which we witness a beautiful young woman named Elizabeth (Anita Briem) walking in on the aftermath of her father’s murder by a barely-glimpsed creature that appears to be a werewolf. Directly following this, Dylan Dog (Brandon Routh) is established as a smooth-talking former paranormal investigator, having given up on his supernatural exploits for more conventional detective work following the tragic death of his late wife. Soon enough, however, he and wisecracking partner Marcus (Sam Huntington, who played Jimmy Olsen opposite Routh in Superman Returns and who takes on the “comedic sidekick” role fulfilled by Groucho/Felix in the comic books) are called upon by Elizabeth to track down the hairy beast responsible for her father’s death.
Though Dylan initially refuses to take on the case, he’s finally convinced following a series of events that culminate with Marcus joining the ranks of the undead (albeit with every ounce of his one liner-spouting/bumbling sidekick faculties intact) after being attacked by an unidentified flesh-eater. Along with Elizabeth, the pair soon find themselves tangling with more werewolves, a vampire clan led by the seductive Vargas (Taye Diggs), and a muscle-bound zombie or two as they discover that her father’s murder is most likely the product of a shady underground conspiracy.
As played by ex-Man of Steel Routh – who possesses the classically handsome, square-jawed good looks of a leading man but little of the charisma required to become one (although in a world where Keanu Reeves is considered a movie star, there’s admittedly always hope) – Dylan is unfortunately a major bore. Though I felt Routh was appropriate for his dual role as Superman and alter-ego Clark Kent in Bryan Singer’s underrated superhero adaptation, Dylan Dog is a character that calls for a bit more edginess than the actor seems capable of bringing to the table. He’s got the build of an Adonis, sure, but there’s something awfully bland and non-threatening, even asexual, about him. While in a strange way that made him perfect as the most iconic of American superheroes, his brand of Wonder Bread masculinity only extends so far – and unless he’s able to pull off an unexpectedly strong performance at some point in the near future, I’m afraid his silver-screen trip may be coming to an end quite a bit sooner than he’d like.
To be fair, Routh is far from the only one at fault here. Many of the film’s considerable problems lie in the screenplay by Sahara scribes Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenhimer (though Munroe admittedly made significant revisions once he came on board). For one thing, Dog’s characterization in the film doesn’t really square with the way he’s portrayed in the comic books. Though I’ve never read a single issue of the series, all you need to do is glance over any description of him online and he reads as a deeply conscientious and philosophical protagonist beset with a host of phobias and other intriguing psychological hang-ups, including an intense Oedipal desire and an aversion to modern modes of communication.
In the film Dog seems to have been scrubbed of almost all individual quirks, leaving us with a standard archetype that comes off as a cross between Philip Marlowe and James Bond but without the hard-boiled edge of the former and the suave, magnetic sex appeal of the latter. Perhaps a more sophisticated performer could’ve imbued this thinly-written caricature with some sense of genuine humanity, but for all his smirky bravado Routh seems incapable of suggesting there’s anything more going on beneath the surface. As a result, the entire flimsy enterprise can’t help but crumble all around him.
Of course, if there was a good performance to be coaxed out of Routh, Munroe certainly wasn’t the man for the job. It becomes apparent pretty early on that the director isn’t entirely comfortable working with live performers – the scenes between all the actors, even those involving such reliable old hands as Peter Stormare, come off strangely obligatory and lifeless. As Marcus, Huntington does have a couple of good moments but his performance also feels awkwardly unmoored; his obvious tendency to ad-lib tends to overwhelm the proceedings rather than add to them, and Munroe (perhaps realizing he’d been stuck with a lightweight in the lead?) appears to have been either unable or unwilling to reign him in.
The action sequences are of course the bread and butter of a film like Dylan Dog, but sadly those come off just as stilted as the human element. For one thing, they’re staged in such rapid-edit style that it’s often hard to tell what’s even going on. A sense of spatial logic is key in effectively choreographing action, but Munroe simply doesn’t provide it. And while his choice to utilize mostly practical effects over CGI is admirable – particularly given his background – they are often painfully ineffective at key moments. Though at one point I found myself hoping for at least a decent werewolf transformation to ease the boredom (for the record, there isn’t one, at least not in any great detail), by the time Munroe and company trotted out what had to be one of the lamest-looking zombies in the history of modern filmdom, I decided maybe it was best if I didn’t get my wish. Even the climactic final monster – preceded by some rather persistent and hyperbolic foreshadowing leading up to the third-act showdown – appears to have just wandered off the set of a low-budget creature feature from the 1950s. Eesh.
Dead of Night has reportedly been met with a generally negative reception in Italy, where the character is something of a national icon. It’s not hard to see why – the film is disappointing not only on a craftsmanship level, but Dylan Dog the character seems to bear very little resemblance to Sclavi’s original conception. The latter doesn’t matter much to American audiences – most of whom won’t be familiar with Dylan Dog in the first place – but the former, unfortunately for all involved, is still more or less a deal-breaker, particularly for a film without the benefit of a big-studio marketing budget. Sorry to say, but when the most impressive thing about your movie is the sight of Brandon Routh’s steel-cut abdominal muscles, you’ve got problems, buddy.