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Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy Can’t Bring Victor Frankenstein to Life

The latest unnecessary adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 man-and-his-monster story never really comes alive.

Despite the electricity generated by the mad scientist chemistry between its two leads, the latest adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 man-and-his-monster story never really comes alive.

Victor Frankenstein updates the Victorian-era tale by following a template established in Guy Ritchie’s recent Sherlock Holmes movies, turning 19th century London into a steampunk amusement park and transforming a cerebral protagonist into an eccentric action hero. Even the Victor-Igor relationship, the film’s strongest suit, isn’t much more than a Holmes-Watson clone.

We first meet Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) as a hunchbacked clown working double duty as the circus’ resident doctor. When the young medical student Victor Frankenstein (a delightfully over-the-top James McAvoy) makes note of Igor’s gifted hands and anatomical knowledge, he orchestrates a prison break. After addressing what will be his “greatest creation” — repairing Igor’s posture and remaking the brilliant, but uncouth, hunchback as a lab assistant — the pair begins its real work: Creating life.

There are rogue prototypes made of animal parts, science montages, and suspicious detectives en route to the inevitable unveiling of the monster. Downtown Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay plays Lorelei, a circus acrobat and Igor’s sweetheart. (It’s easy to suspect the barely-there love interest was introduced to distract squeamish conservative audiences from any homoerotic tension between Igor and Victor.)

Victor Frankenstein is a love story. Igor loves Victor. Victor loves himself. They’re perfect for each other. Radcliffe and McAvoy find the campy gold at the heart of these characters, and there are times when director Paul McGuigan (Push, Lucky Number Slevin) lets his film become a fun, slapstick horror boosted by the knowingly melodramatic performances of his two stars.

More often, Frankenstein veers wildly in quality and tone, from gross-out comedy (draining the hunchback), to action (the escape from the circus), to romantic character study (any scene where Igor and Victor are alone). These ideas are stitched together worse than Frankenstein’s ape prototype, and none of them work entirely on their own.

The film makes some ham-handed attempts at profundity via Roderick Turpin (Andrew Scott), a Scotland Yard investigator with an unshakeable belief in God and a suspicion that whatever is happening in Victor’s basement would not meet His approval. But if there’s anything new to be said about the old “faith vs. science” debate in 2015, screenwriter Max Landis (American Ultra, Chronicle) doesn’t know what it is.

There are a few striking images based on the mythology of this well-worn story, most of them in the last act, when Frankenstein’s second-greatest creation gets jolted into sentience. All together, though, Victor Frankenstein was better off dead.