Apart from an unexpected opening scene, there’s barely an original frame in Jim Taihuttu’s well-made but by-the-book immigrant boxer pic, “Wolf.” Toughened Moroccan parolee hanging with the wrong crowd? Check. Unforgiving father? Check. Slutty g.f. who keeps coming back for abuse? Check. There’s even the good older brother dying in the hospital. Shot in black-and-white in homage to “Raging Bull,” Taihuttu’s solo feature debut, following the co-helmed “Rabat,” is strong on all fronts except freshness. However, its muscly treatment of well-worn themes feeds a taste for such fare, and “Wolf” nabbed San Sebastian’s youth award, signaling decent Euro play.
Audiences will expect a fight when a couple of drunk Dutch guys encounter Majid (Marwan Kenzari) and Adil (Chems Eddine Amar) late at night in Utrecht, but the two Moroccan immigrants just amuse themselves until the coast is clear, then smash a storefront and make off with a motorbike. Majid’s recently been paroled and now lives with his family, punching a clock at a flower auction warehouse to prove he’s rehabilitatable. Extracurricular activities say otherwise.
Home life is tense, since Majid’s father (Abdelkrim Bahloul) remains embarrassed by his son’s rap sheet, and his mom (Baya Belal) is caught in the middle. Younger brother Tarik (Mohammed El Mimouni) looks up to his older sibling, though Majid pressures him to stay on the straight and narrow (any bets on whether he’s successful?). There’s also eldest brother Hamza (Nasrdin Dchar), semi-angelic in his hospital bed when Majid makes nighttime visits.
Wanting to earn extra money to help pay for Hamza’s medical care, Majid gets in touch with kickboxing trainer Ben (Raymond Thiry), who sets him up with shady Turkish fight promoter Hakan (Cahit Olmez). In the ring, Majid turns brutal, and Hakan sees potential for wads of dough through his new protege, not only in the ring but via a sideline in increasingly high-profile robberies.
Adding to Majid’s pressures is former g.f. Tessa (Bo Maerten), a none-too-bright beauty who’s now stepping out with other guys. When he catches her with small-time hood Sergio (Werner Kolf), Majid beats his rival to a bloody pulp and gets nabbed by the cops, though oddly, the infraction doesn’t seem to affect his parole status. Maybe that’s because such a twist wouldn’t fit with where Taihuttu wants to steer his script, which frequently looks past such inconveniences to get back to more exciting conflicts.
Majid has major anger-management issues, yet “Wolf” is uninterested in the reasons, skirting around probabilities like the Arab immigrant experience in Holland without bothering to delve into them properly. His visits with Hamza and concern for their mother are transparently tossed in to give him a soft side, though without some attempt at explaining the pent-up fury, such bids for three-dimensionality fall flat.
Fortunately, Kenzari has sufficient screen presence to keep this formulaic character an annoyance rather than an impediment, and his acting chops are commensurate with his martial-arts skills (both Kenzari and Dchar were also in “Rabat”). Stylistically, the choice of black-and-white feels rather forced, as if Taihuttu deemed that “gritty” could only be conveyed monochromatically. Notwithstanding such concerns, the visuals are pleasing if predictable in their punchy, handheld mannerisms, and d.p. Lennart Verstegen gets nice texture from the play of light and shadow. A montage of coke dealing and snorting, cash-machine robberies and shakedowns, all set to hip-hop music, is the worst example of the pic’s derivative nature.