In John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968), Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune play rival fighter pilots that crash-land on an isolated island and must overcome their animosity to survive and escape to safety. In Wolfgang Petersen’s Enemy Mine (1985), Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr. play rival space fighter pilots that crash-land on an isolated planet and must overcome their animosity to survive and escape to safety. Even at the beginning of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong:Skull Island (2017), actor Will Brittain and musician Miyavi play rival fighter pilots that crash-land on an isolated island and must overcome their animosity to – I am going to assume you understand what I am getting at by this stage.
I bring it all up because it is perhaps not as surprising as you think to discover Paul W.S. Anderson’s Monster Hunter, a 2020 film adaptation of the Capcom videogame franchise, features Milla Jovovich and Tony Jaa as rival soldiers who become stranded on a rocky island on an ocean of sand, and who must put their animosity aside to survive and escape to safety. They fight an awful lot more monsters than the anonymous pilots of Hell in the Pacific, but to be fair not many more than poor Davidge and Jeriba in Enemy Mine, and probably about the same as Hank and Gunpei in Kong: Skull Island. Fans of the original Monster Hunter franchise will likely bristle at Anderson’s active turn away from the games’ stories, but to my mind it seems even worse: he has not abandoned Capcom’s storylines for something entirely original, but rather simply stolen another one from somebody else. It is the best part of his film as well, and comes wedged between a first act of American army rangers getting lost in a sandstorm and a messy climax in which new characters and a major plot shift direct the action towards a sequel that will likely never come.
Jovovich plays Captain Artemis, the leader of a group of army rangers who go looking for a missing convoy and instead stumble into a mysterious alien desert populated by enormous carnivorous monsters. After a giant horned creature decimates her team, Artemis is captured by a bow-wielding master warrior (Tony Jaa) living on a rocky “island” surrounded by sand. In order to survive and return to Earth, Artemis must join forces with the anonymous bowman and defeat the monster that keeps them trapped there.
Milla Jovovich is a veteran of these kinds of pulp, B-grade entertainment, primarily through the Resident Evil films she made with Anderson (her husband since 2009). Tony Jaa brings plenty of natural chemistry and presence to his role as “the Hunter”, although Anderson’s direction does rather limit the effectiveness of Jaa’s martial arts and acrobatic talent. For the bulk of the film their one-on-one storyline – learning from one another, making plans to trap and kill the monster, and so on – is a relatively limited but still reasonably enjoyable ‘desert island’ adventure. It benefits hugely from the various monster designs, which are the key element lifted from the games, and offers a nicely unassuming 60-minute slice of eye candy and breathless action. It is unambitious, but slickly presented.
When Artemis and the Hunter escape the desert 30 minutes too early, it leads to a whole new plot direction in which a team of fighters take them on a quest to take over a distant lightning-fuelled magic tower and close the portal between worlds. It is abrupt, largely unexplained, and significantly less interesting than the stripped-back survival story that precedes it. It includes such oddities as Ron Perlman in an embarrassing wig, a galleon that sails across sand rather than water, and a computer-generated anthropomorphic cat who comes directly from the videogame but has no purpose or explanation in Anderson’s oblique riff upon it.
There is an entertaining, lean action-adventure at the heart of Anderson’s film, but either indecision over purpose or studio interference has compromised that vision with unnecessary and extraneous elements at either end. Monster Hunter is watchable, and at times actively enjoyable, but there is far too much chaff surrounding the wheat. It was reportedly envisaged as a new Resident Evil; a chance to expand a genre picture into a multi-film series over the next decade. Never say never of course, but I find that proposition unlikely.