"Brotherhood of the Wolf" isn't a bad pre-Revolutionary French action-horror flick, per se. But everything that's wrong with it can be summed up by noting that if it had been made in English, it would have starred Christopher Lambert, that heavy-browed, stiff and oh-so-serious staple of glossy B-fantasy swordplay flicks like the "Highlander" series.
It's lavishly over-produced yet full of cheap cinematic artifice -- like gratuitous, unmotivated, absurdly dramatic slow motion and over-the-top sound effects. It takes itself very seriously for a movie with blinders on to its pronounced plot holes. It features ominous secret-society meetings of evil aristocrats who wear masks and velvet robes. And it has a hunky blond hero (Samuel Le Bihan) with period-inaccurate, rock star mullet hair, who sports war paint and twirls twin swords -- just because it looks cool -- during martial arts duels set in cathedral-like mossy forests.
Everything that's right with "Brotherhood of the Wolf" is harder to explain. Set in a dark French province beset by some stealthy supernatural beast that's goring villagers, the film is thick with atmospheric peril and mystery that seems to have hung in the vaporous air for ages.
Cleverly, the plot is inspired by a series of actual wolf attacks in the 1760s which so shook the populace that Louis XV ordered the animal hunted down. When that failed, his hunters just shot a random wolf and had a taxidermist give it a beastly post-mortem makeover so it could be put on display as "The Beast of Gévaudan."
The attacks, of course, continued, but they were hushed up after that. In the film, fiction takes over with the arrival of Chevalier Gregoire de Fronsac (Bihan), an adventurer, naturalist and handsome libertine whose experiences in the wilds of Africa and America inspire a local nobleman to enlist his help tracking and killing the beast.
Fronsac is convinced the animal is something more than a wolf, and thanks to some fearsome critter design by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, he's right. When we finally get a good look at the thing, it's an amazing monster the size of a bear, not entirely unlike a wolf but with a flourish of huge quills sprouting from its back. More importantly it's muzzled in a mask, indicating it's not an animal of the wild but a trained beast with an evil master.
Accompanying Fronsac is his blood brother/manservant Mani (Mark Dacascos), a mystical American Indian martial artist (huh?), whose first scene is a slow-motion, rain-drenched kung-fu fracas in three-point hat with some unsavory locals. This gives you a good indication the direction "Brotherhood of the Wolf" is headed. Consider that director Christophe Gans ("Crying Freeman") hired editor David Wu (a John Woo favorite) and stunt coordinator Philip Kwok ("Tomorrow Never Dies," "Hard-Boiled").
Despite its sometimes laughable elements (a band of antagonistic gypsies look and act like the 18th Century ancestors of "Road Warrior" extras), the film's eerie ambience continually bolsters its integrity through two acts as Fronsac and Mani search for the beast, employing both Indian animal spiritualism and traditional hunting-tracking techniques. Meanwhile, and even more traditionally, Fronsac is also pursuing "the most elusive quarry in the province" -- Marianne Francois (Emilie Dequenne, "Rosetta"), the stunning, flirtatious younger sister of an obviously nefarious aristocrat (a snarling Vincent Cassel).
But even as director Gans gains inroads with credible performances and enjoyably ominous goings-on, he clings closely to his Hong Kong-and-Hollywoodization. He's fiddles with film speed to the point of distraction -- slow-mo during fights is one thing, but slow-mo as a guy jumps off his horse into a puddle? His plot (co-written with Stephane Cabel) turns on implausible characters, like a courtesan/fortuneteller/sorceress played by sultry Monica Bellucci ("Malena").
It isn't long before the B-movie elements of "Brotherhood" surface again, with the death and mystical, inexplicably off-screen resurrection of a major character. Next come a few revelations that expose "surprise" foes but don't explain their motives, and a terribly flashy, patently staged showdown finale that includes the baddie wielding a spine-like sword with supernatural powers.
When "Brotherhood of the Wolf" sticks with the "Wolf" part of the plot, its powers of imagination, fantasy and tension are very engaging. It's when the "Brotherhood" bit comes into play that its brought down to the usual level of the genre with stylish excess trying to make up for deficiencies in the plot and the performances.
Run time: 142 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 31st January 2001
Box Office USA: $10.8M
Distributed by: TVA International
Production compaines: Canal+, Natexis Banques Populaires Images, Studio Image Soficas, Davis-Films, TF1 Films Production, Eskwad
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 72%
Fresh: 86 Rotten: 33
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Christophe Gans
Starring: Samuel Le Bihan as Grégoire de Fronsac, Vincent Cassel as Jean-François de Morangias, Émilie Dequenne as Marianne de Morangias, Monica Bellucci as Sylvia, Jérémie Renier as Thomas d'Apcher, Mark Dacascos as Mani, Jean Yanne as Le Comte de Morangias, Jean-François Stévenin as Sardis, Johan Leysen as Beauterne, Jacques Perrin as Thomas Agé, Bernard Farcy as Laffont, Édith Scob as Mme de Morangias, Hans Meyer as Marquis d'Apcher, Virginie Darmon as La Bavarde, Philippe Nahon as Jean Chastel, Nicky Naude as La Fêlure, Gaëlle Cohen as La Loutre, Charles Maquignon as Valet Maison Teissier, Gaspard Ulliel as Louis, Pascal Laugier as Assistant de Machemort
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