I, someone who is happy to admit to having played 140 hours of Monster Hunter World since its 2018 launch, was on board with the Monster Hunter movie adaptation from its opening minutes. In the first scene, we see a pirate-style ship glide across a sea of dunes. Aboard the ship is a woman, peeking out of a candle-lit window with mismatched binoculars. During the film’s publicity blitz, we knew things like the titular monsters would look fairly accurate to their video game franchise counterparts, but I was dumbfounded by how much detail and care went to cribbing every aspect of the game’s identifiable style.
The woman in the mismatched binoculars is simply known as The Handler, and while she has fewer lines than her chatty, cheery in-game counterpart — who’s essentially your tutorial guide in Monster Hunter: World — visually, they’re near dopplegangers. Her early appearance in the film felt shorthand to me that Monster Hunter’s cinematic debut was done with a lot of love to the sometimes-impenetrable franchise. This wasn’t just a movie made on top of Monster Hunter, but an actual Monster Hunter movie.
That attention to detail is everywhere. After Milla Jovovich’s Captain Artemis and her Army Ranger squad are sucked through a mysterious storm into “Monster Hunter world” (I’m sorry!), every moment of the film feels primed to reward fans. All the set dressing, clothing, armor, weapons, and hair styles are ripped from the games — except for maybe Ron Perlman’s so-bad-its-bad wig. The monsters themselves are peak CG spectacle, especially the iconic Rathalos, the series mascot who gets the final showdown. Writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson loves to pull in close to the reflections in their (maybe even a bit too detailed) eyes, as they stalk Jovovich, her squad, and the Hunter she meets, played by Tony Jaa.
The movie monsters are far more lethal than a video game power fantasy might let on. Monster Hunter isn’t afraid to drop bodies in some pretty gnarly ways, and the movie’s long first act sends the squad running from one perilous beast to another as they are picked off one by one. Anderson’s Resident Evil films were no stranger to gory deaths, but there’s at least one in Monster Hunter that felt unnecessarily gross, all to drive home the point that monsters can tear through modern armored vehicles like tissue paper. (The lopsided tank-vs.-monster matchups, despite being largely revealed in cinematic trailers, are some of the biggest gut-busting funny moments of the film.)
Naturally, the only way to take their foes down are traps, grappling hooks, and big-ass swords, all of which are equally faithful to their game counterparts, down to the ways Jaa’s Hunter swings his great sword and Jovovich wields the dual blades. The biggest great sword swings are even shot to honor their video game inspiration, often with dramatic wide shots that show the scale between human and beast.
Despite Monster Hunter having a large supporting cast on paper, Jovovich spends chunks of the movie alone, toughing it out through wicked monsters and reinforcing her action-hero pedigree. Many of these moments are tropes we’ve seen before; she kisses a ring inscribed “forever” before cauterizing a wound on her leg with gunpowder and a flare. But the actress’ charisma brings life to the one-dimensional character, and once she teams up with Jaa, the pair’s language barrier doesn’t stop their chemistry. They learn to cooperate in the fights, and while close-cropped editing diminishes the impact of some of their longer brawls, the stunts are dramatic.
The entire movie is light in the story and character department; Jovovich’s entire Ranger squad has names like “Axe,” “Marshall,” “Dash,” and “Linc.” Anderson seems aware — the tropes felt as deliciously campy as the action. Matched with a reverence for the games, Monster Hunter’s fan service-laden setpieces were the perfect, mindless salve for 2020. It’s hard to say if it’s comprehensible to someone who doesn’t love the series, but its bombastic action hardly lags during its hour-and-a-half run time. It’s a happy member of this new class of video game movies written with an obvious love of its lore, though possibly not able to stand up without a deep appreciation for the source material.
Monster Hunter is out now in theaters