Just rolling around a phrase like "Paul W.S. Anderson's best movie" feels a little bit idiotic. Being "good" isn't part of the point; being an enormous, ludicrous spectacle of the most unapologetically gaudy nonsense that a middle-aged video game nerd thinks is "cool" is the point. And this is why the most important Anderson text is his version of The Three Musketeers with explosive airship battles. Nevertheless, let me just shred all the credibility I might have left with anybody, and declare that not only is his adaptation of the Monster Hunter video game franchise Anderson's "best" movie, it is also a "very good" movie on its own terms. Which are maybe not the same terms as other movies. In truth, Monster Hunter is somewhat frustrating as a narrative. It has no obvious escalation towards a climax, not least because it doesn't exactly have a climax - its final moments don't even let the movie slow down as it races towards the next showdown, which is presumably meant to happen in a sequel (the mid-credits scene further suggests that this sequel is going to be extremely different than the movie we've just sat through). Though honestly, I like the complete abandonment of any resolution just fine in Monster Hunter as a standalone feature; it neatly caps the film's sense of high speed-mayhem being pitched at you wave-by-wave rather than scene-by-scene.

Or to put it another way: it's a video game adaptation that hews to the logic of video game storytelling rather than cinematic storytelling; it might not have a climax, but it has a level boss; and it might not have a narrative arc, but it has a mission to fulfill. It as this point boring to point out that Anderson makes all of the best movies out video games (indeed, I have a much easier time imagining a plausible list of the Top 5 Video Game Adaptations made up exclusively of Anderson-directed films than one made without any of them*), but it's necessary to do so, at least every time we find ourselves face to face with an Anderson video game movie. Because the reason he's so good at them, and the reason they're so hard to declare "good movies" without any twinge of shame, is that he obviously sincerely enjoys playing games, and likes to think about how to translate video game mechanics into storytelling devices. He does this, ironically, while freely discarding and reimagining the material of the games themselves, creating cinematic riffs on the material of the games more than anything, and I contend that these riffs can be extremely satisfying when they go well.

Monster Hunter goes extremely well. At the most superficial level, it's the first Anderson film with generally pretty great CGI,especially for its not-terribly-high budget: not that 2020 was bursting at the seams with big-budget popcorn movies, but this is easily in the top-tier of visual effects films, creating building-sized monsters that would do any '70s pulp sci-fi novel illustrator proud, and giving them plausible weight and mass, clear textures, presence. They're huge nightmare beasts, and they feel that huge - not a bad achievement given the gloss hollowness of so much CGI from far more well-heeled films than this one. The soundtrack rattles with appropriately huge roars and crashes from all directions, and it's capped off with a terrific synth-driven score by Paul Haslinger that feels much more "this is an alien world" and much less "this is an '80s film", compared to much of our present synth-obsessed moment in film scoring, and it even gets some good old-fashioned adventure movie bombast somewhere in all the electronics.

So the spectacle, at least, in place. As our vessel for that spectacle, the film hinges, expectedly, on Anderson's wife and muse, Milla Jovovich, who plays a U.S. military officer named Artemis whose team is warped from one desert rescue mission to another thanks to a magical sandstorm. The whole lot of them (there are two jeepfuls, and at least one is played by a recognisable actor, Tip "T.I." Harris, but there's no real reason to get attached to any of these people) spend the opening act trying to figure out where they hell they are and what the hell is going on, and eventually, all of them but Artemis are killed by giant alien bugs. She then has to race through the desert, avoiding a monstrous big sandworm, eventually meeting two allies, a hunter who speaks no language she can decode, played by Tony Jaa, who teaches her the fundamentals of combat and constructing new weapons out of the bits of dead monsters (this is where the "storytelling via game mechanics" approach is most obvious, and where it pays off the best), and a crazy old gentleman who speaks English, played by Ron Perlman, who belongs in a Paul W.S. Anderson movie so hard that I'm a bit agog it took until the director's fourteenth feature-length project to make it happen. He gives some exposition, but comes far enough into the plot that Artemis has already mostly just started paying attention to attacking giant creatures with bladed weapons, and doesn't really care, any more than she seems to mind that all of her teammates died horribly.

It is, in other words, a profoundly shallow motion picture. But it's aware of this. All of Monster Hunter's pleasures are slick and primitive, often built around Jovovich and Jaa striking cool poses while holding improbably weaponry and standing in partial silhouette. The best thing about it is that Anderson and editor Doobie White absolutely never let it slow down enough that we have reason to think about anything else but the purity of the film's forward momentum: this film has some wildly fast editing, no less so than the pair's previous collaboration, 2016's Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. Only they've refined it: it's not just fast, now it actually has a kind of clear motivation relative to the movement of the action, so it all proves to be quite readable and attentive to the layout of space. For a film that relies almost entirely on constant movement to provide all of its entertainment value, that's both a crucial achievement, and something of a surprising one, given how choppy The Final Chapter was (it's the worst-edited film in Anderson's filmography, even). Here, even the most unnecessary editorial flourishes have a kind of intrinsic logic to them - the one that especially leapt out to me was a cut from a medium shot of Jovovich to a minutely closer medium shot of Jovovich from roughly the same angle, where it's clear that the point of the cut was to make sure we understand how she's hefting her big-ass video game sword. Necessary? No, almost certainly not. But cool? Arguably yes, and certainly being cool is really the only goal Monster Hunter prioritises.

Coolness being in the eye of the beholder, I can't tell you whether that pays off, but for my tastes, this includes some of the most delightful over-the-top excesses of action in any Anderson film. The opening scene, in particular, might very well be the single best thing he's ever directed, a nighttime assault between a giant beast and some sort of fantasy/sci-fi sand boat, oscillating wildly between shot scales and positions, in the nearly complete dark, and still entirely legible, and with Haslinger's music bellowing alongside it, pretty exciting, too. It sets a high bar that the film doesn't come remotely close to clearing until the team has been killed; the film's obvious strength, besides its tasteless indulgence in spectacular CGI, is the interplay between Jovovich, Jaa, and Perlman, three actors who understand that the game here is to simply turn on the movie star charisma and just have a good, goofy time joking around and snarling as they brandish weapons. So it's really only once the film starts to play around with all three of them that it really clicks.

It's also not until pretty far along into the movie that we see any environment other than a mostly featureless desert with bright white sunlight, and this is maybe my single biggest problem with the film. It's pretty much the same thing over and over for nearly all of its running time, and when that thing involves Jovovich and Jaa grinning at each other and pantomiming banter - it speaks both to the film's priorities that it mostly involves two characters who can't speak and so don't ever really talk, and to its strengths that this ends up being charming and fun to watch - it works. When it doesn't, the repetitiveness and lack of real escalation until the very end of the film do become rather noticeable problems. I concede that my star rating is certainly erring on the side of generosity, in this respect. But whatever, when the film works, it works extremely well, and any popcorn movie that's this good at showing off how much the people who made it love what they're doing is worth being generous to.

*To be precise, I can imagine this list, because it is almost precisely my own:
1. Monster Hunter (Anderson, 2020)
2. Mortal Kombat (Anderson, 1995)
3. Resident Evil: Afterlife (Anderson, 2010)
4. Resident Evil: Retribution (Anderson, 2012)
5. Resident Evil (Anderson, 2002)

The only real cheat is that I would probably actually rate Pokémon Detective Pikachu higher than the first Resident Evil. Probably.