By Owen Gleiberman
Updated June 24, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

As a kid, watching cheeseball horror films on Saturday-afternoon TV, you could be certain of one thing whenever a werewolf movie came on: You were going to see transformation scenes. It didn’t matter whether the wolfman was played by Lon Chaney Jr. (who always looked as if he were about to cry) or, God forbid, some less talented actor. The moment the wolf fever struck, it was monster-movie heaven. The story would stop dead and the hero would look directly into the camera, his image metamorphosing in eerie waves — the face turning hairier and hairier, the teeth growing more and more canine, until they were gnashing of their own accord. Was there ever a cooler metaphor for what happens when your hormones kick in?

Wolf, the new werewolf thriller starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Mike Nichols, doesn’t have any transformation scenes. In this movie, when the hero turns into a humanoid wolf, you can tell because he suddenly appears wearing really fakey muttonchop sideburns. Oh, and his hair is messed up. He looks sort of like Thomas Jefferson on a bender. Clearly, Nichols and his screenwriters, Wesley Strick and Jim Harrison, were trying for something other than a special-effects fun house. They wanted to make a werewolf movie with character. If only they’d had the imagination to follow through on their own good instincts.

For a while, Wolf succeeds in entertaining us with the story of a wimp’s revenge. Will Randall (Nicholson), a weary Manhattan book editor, is the sort of honorable middle-aged washout who has devoted his life to editing the literature he cares about, only to discover that he’s the only one in the world who still cares. Will’s publishing house is being taken over by a Rupert Murdoch-style tycoon, Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer), whose only priority, naturally, is to maximize profits. Will is about to lose his job — and, what’s worse, he’s being replaced by his assistant, the two-faced bootlicker Stewart Swinton (James Spader), who has lobbied for the senior editor position behind Will’s back. That Stewart also happens to be sleeping with Will’s wife (Kate Nelligan) is the surest indication that the script isn’t going to tread lightly.

But something has come over Will. At the beginning of the movie he is bitten by a wolf in the New England wilderness, and strange things are starting to happen to him. His senses are operating in overdrive. He can smell tequila on the breath of a coworker from 20 feet away and hear conversations from across the lobby. He’s also feeling strong, blustery, alive. His haggard skin takes on a pinkish glow. His smile perks up, and even his hair looks thicker. To hell with self-doubt! To hell with getting stomped on by the boss! Wolfman… what a feeling!

We’ve grown so used to thinking of Jack Nicholson as a Day-Glo caricature of his former self that it’s easy to forget what a crafty mood manipulator he can be. Letting his facial muscles go slack, he makes Will just enough of a weakling so that we’ll root for him, but not enough so that the actor’s old knife-edged cynicism can’t glint through. Wolf features some vengefully funny showdowns. When Will stands up to Alden — which, of course, impresses the tycoon — you can feel the film’s energy rise. Nicholson and Plummer bring out the ham in each other; they’re two kinds of devil, one leering, one cultivated. Spader, by now, has played the soft-spoken corporate brat once too often, but he’s great at it, and it’s fun to see Nicholson wipe the floor with him. And though Michelle Pfeiffer, as Alden’s poor-little-rich-girl daughter, is stuck in a thankless role (first she’s haughty, then she melts — that’s all, folks), there’s a nice scene in which Will woos her over peanut-butter sandwiches. He slices through her defenses, and she slices him right back: the love dance of the ’90s.

Then Nichols drops the ball. The early office scenes are executed with satirical panache. But as soon as Wolf moves onto conventional horror terrain, it becomes stuffy and blah, like the elephantine thrillers Hitchcock began turning out during the mid-’60s. As a director, Nichols gives the impression of never having seen a movie made in the Lucas-Spielberg era. His idea of supernatural dazzle is to have his werewolf perform Peter Pan-style leaps. What ultimately cripples Wolf, though, is that the script seems to dry up as it goes along, leaving the film with absolutely no twists. At night, Will becomes a wolf and kills people! Who are his enemies! One of whom turns into a wolf too! By the time Will starts asking to be locked up so that he won’t kill again, it might as well be Lon Chaney Jr. behind those muttonchops. Sad to say, the scariest transformation in Wolf is the way the film itself devolves from a savvy contemporary fable into a weirdly airless B movie. B-