There's a funny moment about twenty minutes into Skinwalkers, when a balding protagonist, played by Elias Koteas, has to explain what's going on to a confused Rhona Mitra. "We're called Skinwalkers," he says. "You would call us werewolves." Oh, thanks. That clears it up. It turns out that Mitra's character is more or less the only non-wolf character in the entire film. She's caught in the middle of an idealogical war between opposing clans of werewolves, some of whom believe that being a werewolf is a bad thing and want an out, and those on the other side who believe being a wolf is fun and have formed themselves into a motorcycle gang of marauding lycanthropes. There's a nice little moment when a pistol-packing granny throws down against the gang when they ride into town looking for trouble, but I'm already stretching to be nice. The good moments are actually few and far between. Only Stan Winston completists or late-to-the-party casting agents wanting a good look at Mitra in action will find much on offer here.

The entire premise of a war between reluctant and self-righteous monsters has already been done (and better) by the X-Men series, which is the obvious inspiration here. There's even a blatant rip-off in the form of a 'boy cure,' which was the plot-engine in the third X-Men film. (To be totally fair, Skinwalkers could have been written long before that film, for all I know.) The boy in this film, played by Matthew Knight, has some kind of special, rare blood that can turn werewolves back into men, or something like that, so he was long ago spirited away to a small town to live with his in-the-dark mother, played by Mitra, all the while secretly protected by good wolves who never let anyone know they're even wolves at all. At night, these good wolves strap themselves into harnesses so that when the moon is full and they wolf-out (thanks to the drama coach in Teen Wolf for that phrase) they won't cause damage. Every night, from sundown to sunup, they howl and thrash, harmlessly.

The werewolf effects are nicely done, if somewhat old-school, with the overgrown whiskers and cat's eyes reminiscent of Michael Jackson's Thriller. The real trick with werewolf effects is in the turn, and this film mostly avoids that, which is probably wise if they didn't have the money to do it well. One thing they could have done, however, but didn't, was invest some energy in defining or expanding the 'rules' of werewolf lore. There are a couple of scenes where a gun is emptied and normal-looking bullets are described as being 'silver bullets' but other than that I can hardly remember any nods to werewolf precedent. Instead, the film goes in the opposite, and more trendy direction of pretending that it's not really about what it's about. You've seen this a lot in the vampire genre lately, so I guess the cross-over was inevitable. This is a film about two warring gangs who are determined to shoot it out with each other, and they just happen to be werewolves -- they could have just as easily been anything.

There are also some missed opportunities, such as a hospital scene in which a cute nurse -- way too cute to be believable, actually; when's the last time you saw a supermodel-caliber blonde pulling nurse duty in a small-town hospital? -- is mauled by the bad wolves so that they can get to the kid. The action in this scene is low-key and poorly thought-out, and indicative of an autopilot-mentality that's in effect for a lot of the film. Director James Issac's most recent film was Jason X, which was unseen by me, so I have no idea if he's ever displayed any action chops before and maybe didn't have the budget or the crew to pull it off here, or if he actually thinks that it's more exciting to only see the aftermath of a werewolf kill -- a person lying dead on a bed -- than to see the real thing. It seems like if you're going to shoot a werewolf battle in a hospital, you'd start by sketching out at least ten 'moments' that you want to pull off.

Overall, the biggest problem with Skinwalkers isn't really the story or the acting and directing, which are more or less adequate -- it's the rating, which isn't consistent with the tone. This is a story that contains a scene of off-screen torture, several shadowed werewolf kills, gun battles in which people grab their shoulders to indicate a hit, and numerous opportunities for gratuitous nudity that go un-seized. The bad guys, for example, have a bikini-top wearing biker girl who is given nothing to do but stand around and look sexy the entire time. Whose idea was it to make this film PG-13? Couldn't they have made it R and then taken the trouble to make the requisite edits when the film was eventually sold to the Sci-Fi Network? Why water it down right out of the gate? As you can probably tell by now, I went into Skinwalkers wanting to give it a break, and I've bent over backwards to point out the good stuff, but at some point, the filmmakers have to help me out.