2021’s Pig served as a friendly reminder that Nicolas Cage can, in fact, act in something not meant for straight-to-DVD. While the hustle is admirable, Cage — who was so good in a variety of genres in his heyday from Raising Arizona to Bringing Out the Dead — had started becoming synonymous with the type of movies you’d see in the bargain bin of your local grocery store. Pig and then even The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, in which he just played himself, were a nice change of pace that showed both his dramatic and fun sides once again. Renfield, however, peaks far too early and uses its best jokes in the trailer.
The story of Renfield is really split into two storylines. First, you have the emancipation story of R. M. Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) — who’s kind of like Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada — from Dracula (Cage). It’s a bit that likely got plenty of laughs from screenwriter Ryan Ridley in its conceptual stages — or Robert Kirkman who came up with the story. Regardless of who wrote it, the bit is beaten into the ground (admittedly, quite funnily in some moments). Yes, it’s funny that Renfield attends a support group meeting and seemingly talks about a narcissistic boss, but that’s shown in the trailer (and it doesn’t get any better in the film).
A still from Renfield courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Hoult goes from gawkily seeking the approval of Ralph Fiennes’ chef in The Menu to gawkily seeking the approval of Dracula in Renfield up until his emancipation mission. As The Menu showed, he’s a talented actor, but he can only go so far with the material he’s given. His character is at his best when he’s a “fish out of water” that is not fully self-aware enough to realize his situation sounds ridiculous and attempts to fit in with society (Brandon Scott Jones as the support group leader is the MVP). Unfortunately, that’s just a small bit of his character.
Ridley’s experience as a writer on Rick & Morty can be felt. From the dark humor to the over-the-top gore, the puzzle pieces click once this connection is made. However, like Rick & Morty, Renfield often gets in its own way with too many ideas and only so much time (the film is 93 minutes long with credits).
Case in point, the second storyline in Renfield revolves around a crime family led by Ella (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her son, Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), and the corruption of the city’s police force. They’re responsible for killing the father of traffic cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), who seeks to put them behind bars despite the whole force working against her. It’s like crossing over Blue Bloods and Zombieland with results as thrilling as you’d imagine that pairing. It’s not that the idea is too heady for a film like Renfield — it’s not like this film has anything to say on that front, anyway — it’s that the film appears to take itself a little bit more seriously than it should in these moments.
While Schwartz chews up the scenery in his scenes, Awkwafina is a prime example of fitting a square peg into a round hole. She can occasionally be funny, even in Renfield, but her eccentricity and quirks feel out of place due to the fact she was given the worst hand out of the cast because most of her sequences are when the film is supposed to be somewhat serious.
A still from Renfield courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Speaking of chewing up the scenery, Cage does exactly that as Dracula, but you expect nothing less. His performance may, on occasion, cause a slight grin, but he’s so absent for large chunks that he largely ends up being all bark and no bite (and boy does this film come to a screeching halt when he hibernates and is nowhere to be found).
But the biggest issue of them all is the fact that Renfield has a John Wick problem — more specifically, a John Wick: Chapter 4 problem. While Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves have created the standard for modern action flicks, the fourth installment’s action becomes so mind-numbing at times that it’s hard to really invest in it. Sure, there are plenty of gory kills and Reeves kicks all kinds of butt, but many seem to be ignoring the fact that it’s almost so repetitive that every sequence consists of him kicking someone, punching, and then shooting them in the face. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but after nearly three hours of it, it becomes monotonous.
Renfield features even more gore and gruesome kills, especially from Hoult’s character. Again, it’s fun the first few times to see him punch someone so hard that their arms detach from their body, but can’t this old dog learn some new tricks? Anytime there is a fight scene — and believe me, they’re not quite as frequent as you’d want purely to escape the actual story — it plays like a John Wick: Chapter 4 scene without any of the focus. That’s largely an editing and cinematography issue, and by no means is it quite like Taken 3’s horrific quick-cuts, but it’s times like these where gory kills can get people to clap like seals as easily as nostalgia in comic book flicks.
And it’s a shame that Renfield starts off promising, even with its cinematography, and peaks quite early on. When Renfield is explaining his backstory with Dracula, the film pays homage to various old-school Dracula films like Nosferatu — Hoult will be in the upcoming remake. These sequences are well-done and really capture the essence of those films — even in the performances from both Cage and Hoult.
But, ultimately, the film never reaches that level again. It’s really a shame because an entire 90-minute film set in that world is far more interesting than a Dracula film in present day.
Should you see Renfield?
Renfield has a unique enough premise to be something unique, but it has too many ideas for a 90-minute romp. Say what you want about Cage and the rest of the ensemble, but hamming it up can only get you so far. Chris McKay’s Dracula flick is ultimately rendered fangless.
Renfield grade: C-
Renfield will be released on April 14.
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