Chris McKay’s Renfield doesn’t have enough bark to its bite, with an aggressively mediocre screenplay and monotonous performances bringing down the film’s impeccably-crafted action scenes.
The jump from animated and live-action films has proved difficult for director Chris McKay. In The Tomorrow War and Renfield, he nails the direction of elaborate action sequences. Still, he fails at delivering compelling characters and a story that will entice viewers from beginning to end. While Renfield is theoretically better in terms of technical craft than The Tomorrow War (since it’s less reliant on CGI and instead crafts action scenes with practical blood and guts), it’s also worse in terms of story. A mediocre screenplay delivers a story that we’ve all seen before and two actors unfortunately give some of the most uninspired performances of their career.
Thankfully, Renfield has the incredible presence of Nicolas Cage as Count Dracula. He’s essentially the main selling point of the film. Forget Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Awkwafina (Raya and the Last Dragon), who are sleepwalking through their respective roles as Renfield and police officer Rebecca Quincy; you’ll see Renfield for Cage as Dracula. And I expected nothing less than another impeccable performance from such an iconic actor, though I didn’t expect him to be scarier than I thought he would be.
With his thin (but long) teeth and snarling hiss, Cage is a menacing foe for Renfield, who wants to break away from his decades-long codependent relationship as Dracula’s master. Unfortunately, Cage is barely in the movie and doesn’t make much of an impact, with Renfield focusing on the dull story between the titular protagonist stuck in the middle of a war between corrupt police officers, the mob, and…Dracula, who starts to bite his teeth (pun absolutely intended) with the mob by planning on dominating the world.
And none of it is remotely interesting. It’s a story that has been beaten to death in so many horror comedies, but it wouldn’t have necessarily mattered if the lead performances from Hoult and Awkwafina were any good. Their chemistry is non-existent. There isn’t a second where you believe the two are friends. They didn’t need to be romantically involved. Still, if you can’t nail a friendship, or at least a buddy relationship à la Lethal Weapon, you have failed at delivering protagonists the audience will care about.
Even Ben Schwartz as Teddy, one of the lead mobsters, can’t make an impact. His character is grossly underdeveloped, and the lines he says seem to be written by someone who has never watched a mafia film but instead read the book “Mobster Movies for Dummies.” It’s a shame because every one of these actors is so talented and has respectively given great performances in other media pieces. Except for (a very underused) Cage, none of the actors seem to give a damn.
It’s good that the film contains numerous fun action sequences that pick the pace back up. It fails miserably whenever it attempts to develop characters and draw a good story, but whenever its action sequences kick into gear, hot damn. What a spectacle. It’s a guarantee that practical blood will make the action gnarlier and far more effective, and it’s part of the reason why Renfield’s action setpieces are so fun to watch. One foot chase in an apartment complex is the movie’s highlight, containing copious amounts of blood and even ripped-out arms used as weapons. The climax is also fun to watch, but its pace moves too quickly to be truly memorable. Still, it’s the highlight of the movie and the reason, with Cage, why you should bother with Renfield in the first place.
Because Renfield honestly feels like a waste of potential for a better and less clichéd story, that would’ve greatly benefited the lead performances and made the movie a more memorable affair than just a mildly amusing 93-minute horror comedy with neat, practical effects-driven action scenes. And whether you liked the movie or not, there’s something you can’t deny: Nicolas Cage is an icon who will hopefully be in even more movies for many years to come.
Renfield is out now on digital and on demand.