Approached in the proper spirit, the two-and-a-half-hour French historical martial-arts romance Grand Guignol forensics horror blowout Brotherhood of the Wolf (Universal Focus) is good for nasty chuckles and even a few hearty whoops: You have to admire a movie that endeavors to moosh together every successful cross-cultural action picture ever made.
After a French Revolution-set prologue to establish its pedigree, the movie promptly shifts into Jaws mode with a young blond lass bloodying herself on assorted rocks to escape what locals call "la bête," described as a giant, woman-and-child-eating wolf. It's no use running, though: Whatever is producing that Dolbyized grrrrrrrr-raschhhh whips the poor girl around, snaps her spine, and yanks her off-screen to be further mauled. To help in the investigation, King Louis XV dispatches dashing adventurer/taxidermist Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his "blood-brother"/sidekick Mani (Mark Dacascos), a Native American with liquid brown eyes and a mean corkscrew-swivel-kick. The latter is a Mani of few words, which is just as well since his French accent is worse even than mine: The most outlandish thing in the movie isn't his kung-fu calisthenics but that the French don't break up in hysterics at his pronunciation. Even the characters must know how important he is for the American and Asian markets.
They are not entirely credible, our heroes. In a world of bigots and religious zealots, Fronsac and Mani combine the most progressive aspects of science and New Age spirituality. Fronsac, the cinema's first liberal rationalist pantheist forensic martial-arts swashbuckler, suspects that the true demon is human and that the answer to the murders must lie with an unholy alliance between the fanatical aristocracy—at whose splendid châteaux he is a welcome guest—and the degenerate proles. Mani, the lone survivor of an exterminated tribe, has a mystical communion with animals and religious martyrs of yore ("People died here … I can hear their cries"); between kickboxing bouts, he tries to solve the mystery with the help of the region's wolves, who clearly don't appreciate being vilified (and hunted down) for the crimes of some lupine poseur. Both men keep their guard up among the locals, but neither can resist the pull of sundry nubile wenches: Fronsac is torn between a kinky, hot-tempered Italian courtesan (Monica Bellucci) and a chubby-cheeked, throaty ingénue (Emilie Dequenne); Mani is waylaid by a puffy-lipped Angelina Jolie-ish peasant who likes to toss her black mane and stick her tongue down the throats of various Road Warrior refugees.
The movie is a teeming mixture of The Curse of the Werewolf and Cry of the Banshee and Jaws and Sleepy Hollow and A Fistful of Dollars and Let Joy Reign Supreme and The Name of the Rose and Fists of Fury and Mad Max and Once Upon a Time in China II and The Last of theMohicans and The Hound of the Baskervilles and maybe a thousand other pictures that rumble around in the collective unconscious of schlock fiends. And I have no problem with that. In the right hands, this could have been a recipe for the most rollicking exploitation picture ever made. The trouble is that the director, Christophe Gans, prefers his battle scenes heavily chopped-up: Instead of fluid acrobatics, we get hyperbolic montages of kicking feet, somersaulting torsos, and fists connecting with faces. Gans is also fond of tacky slow motion, overamplified bone crunches, and the kind of metallic whooshes that are more appropriate as an accompaniment to spinning disco balls. The film would have been helped by a shade more Ang Lee and a shade less Six Million DollarMan.
That said, the last hour of Brotherhood of the Wolf attains the kind of superconcentrated, out-for-vengeance intensity that leaves you feeling kicked in the head—which isn't the worst thing you can say about this sort of flick. No Crouching Tiger swoons into oblivion: just a flurry of righteous throat-slashings, disembowelments, and impalings. No wonder this was the biggest movie ever in France. Taste might have actually interfered with some of the best shots, such as the one in which the camera prowls the naked expanse of Monica Bellucci and her mounds of pink-ivory flesh become—in an instant—the snow-covered hills and dales of the southern French countryside. It kinda makes you think this will be France's biggest DVD as well.
One of the many things I've learned as a film critic is that novels with sentences like
The Magnum swung around fast and beside Frank the table exploded in a shower of poker chips as he felt his body twist and then launch itself over the ottoman, firing one shot, two, the first bullet ripping through Murphy's right hand while the second punctured his spleen and sent an ocher-tinted porridge splashing hard against the pale wall ...
often make very entertaining movies, while novels with sentences like,
His thoughts churned like the amorphous thing that ancient sailors, drifting into arctic half-light, called the Sea Lung; a heaving sludge of ice under fog where air blurred into water, where liquid was solid, where solids dissolved, where the sky froze and light and dark muddled ...
tend to be rather arm's-length experiences.