Renfield Review: Cage and Hoult Have Bloody Good Fun in Toothless Vampire Action Comedy
Even at just 93 minutes, Chris McKay’s “Renfield” packs in a worrying number of recurring gags: there are the exploding heads and bodies that go boom during action scenes, the confessional sequences that take place in the world’s most ill-fated codependency support group, even star Nicholas Hoult being gutted (literally) twice in the span of just five minutes. But it’s another running joke that holds the key to the film: Hoult, here cast as the eponymous star Robert Montague Renfield, finds himself introducing himself by his full name, repeatedly, to everyone, all the time.
That Ryan Ridley and Robert Kirkman’s vampire action comedy screenplay (Kirkman gets “story by” credit, while Ridley wrote the final script) feels the need to keep doing it so long and so often (this is Renfield! you know…Renfield? our star?) is proof even they’re not entirely comfortable with where all this is going. And that’s too bad, because the basic premise of “Renfield” — that Dracula’s loyal and occasionally tortured servant and familiar is finally ready to embark on his own life after decades in servitude to the world’s worst boss — is a clever new way to spin old IP. The execution, however? Toothless.
Biffing such a good idea is tragic enough, but it gets worse: McKay (who clearly knows funny, this is a filmmaker who cut his teeth with “Robot Chicken” and “The LEGO Batman Movie”) actually has the exact right stars on deck to lead this thing, and even they can’t rescue it. Nicolas Cage as Dracula? Brilliant. Nicholas Hoult as his simpering but sweet lackey? Genius. These are the bones of an inspired action comedy, but Ridley and Kirkman’s unwieldy script — one either incoherent from the start or chopped into a mess during the final edit — hobbles “Renfield” from the start.
You can’t blame Renfield for constantly introducing himself, because even “Renfield” often forgets he’s the focal point of this feature. Instead, after an inspired opening that riffs on the classic Universal monster movies of yore and injects it with a distinctly modern sensibility (Renfield goes to the support group to find victims, only to find himself), McKay’s film is suddenly about a bossy traffic cop (Awkwafina) with daddy issues who has spent her entire career going up against a mob family led by Ben Schwartz and Shohreh Aghdashloo. Pardon?
And while this might be the ideal point to squeeze in a Frankenstein’s monster joke — was this script cobbled together by loose bits of other stories? it sure feels that way! — even that’s too eloquent a gag to apply to this mess of a film. Perhaps that’s why there are so many distractions on offer, from those aforementioned exploding heads and bodies (perhaps most of the film’s budget was spent on fake blood?) to a mafia subplot that only seems to exist as a way to pull in still more heads and bodies (to explode, of course).
After Renfield realizes he’s in the midst of a toxic relationship (with Cage having the most fun playing the classic bloodsucker with his own natty twist), he sets about disentangling himself from the baddie ASAP. And while that yields at least one truly delightful sequence — a spin on the makeover montage that has the energy and pop the rest of the film so brutally lacks — it’s basically a blip in an otherwise muddled story.
As part of Renfield’s move into becoming an actual person, he gets tangled up with New Orleans cop Rebecca (Awkwafina), a rebel on the local force who is intent on bringing down the Lobo crime group (led by Aghdashloo and Schwartz as an amusingly cast mother-and-son duo) after they killed her dad (also a cop) for not wanting to sell out and go corrupt. O…K? Wasn’t this a film about Dracula’s lackey? As Rebecca and Renfield get closer — the pair lacks romantic chemistry, but they are occasionally funny together — their various nemeses draw together for one last, predictably blood-spattered battle royale.
It’s all an approximation of fun, mirth in tiny portions, amusement of the thinnest variety. Is Cage having fun? Yes. Does Hoult deserve a more meaty script? Definitely. Is it fun to cheer when heads explode and Hoult beats multiple men to death with a pair of arms he ripped off one dude? Absolutely! But that’s all stuff that sounds fun on paper, but is utterly limp in execution. There’s nothing juicy here, nothing really new, a bloodless spin on what should have been a tasty new take.
Universal Pictures will release “Renfield” in theaters on Friday, April 14.
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