A sure sign of ongoing cultural cross-pollenation is when a French filmmaker freely hijacks his own cultural history and crossbreeds it with Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema conventions. The end result here is Brotherhood of the Wolf, a movie that's such a mad fusion of genres, styles, concepts and looks-and-feels that it becomes its own somewhat demented animal. Pardon the pun.
Wolf was written and directed by Christophe Gans, also responsible for the quite good and largely unseen film adaptation of the manga Crying Freeman, about an assassin who weeps every time he kills. That movie starred Marc Dacascos as Freeman; Wolf also features the same actor, albeit in a smaller role. Freeman was slightly hamstrung by its origins — it's basically a retelling of the first volume of the comic with some details compressed and thrown out. Wolf goes much further, taking a chapter from French history and embellishing it with high-action fantasy elements.
The story concerns "the Beast of Gevaudan," a monster that allegedly terrorized the French countryside in 1764, killing dozens before finally being brought down. Sent to determine its nature is Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), possibly the most martial-arts savvy taxidermist I have ever seen in a movie, along with his Indian sidekick Mani (Dacascos). Dacascos is Hawaiian by birth, but passes more or less seamlessly for an American Indian in this movie — especially in scenes where he's wearing nothing north of the Equator, so to speak.
Fronsac and Mani collide with the nobles of the area, including the cold-eyed Jean-Francois (Vincent Cassel, who was also excellent in The Crimson Rivers), a one-armed hunter with a customized gun. His sister, Marianne (Emilie Dequenne) eventually takes a shine to Fronsac, much to the chagrin of many people. But there's also Sylvia (Monica Bellucci), one of the local courtesans, who beds both Fronsac and Mani, and has a steel-ribbed, razor-edged fan that gets put to use at least once. Another subplot involves the local hunters who resent this lordly upstart for coming in and making them all look foolish, but in this movie Fronsac would probably dwarf Voltaire and Ben Franklin combined.
The local court at first find Fronsac and Mani amusing, but when they start digging a lot deeper than they should into the nature of the beast, their amusement vanishes and is replaced with annoyance. It doesn't help that Fronsac likes to rub their noses in their superstitions: at one point he passes around a fish with fur and tricks everyone into thinking it's a genuine find.
Eventually Fronsac deduces that the beast itself is not a wolf, as the locals believe, and may not even be the most important thing. The beast is someone's weapon, and he and Mani infiltrate a mysterious lodge in the heart of the countryside that appears to hold more than one secret about the monster's origins. What it is, or who controls it, I will not say, of course, but it goes without saying that Fronsac and Mani eventually go head-to-head with it in a fight that is as eye-popping and elaborate as it is implausibly silly. I always have to ask myself how they managed to fabricate all those traps and battlements with nothing more than whatever was lying around, all on the night before.
Any movie that has a monster as one of its centerpieces had better have a monster that's worth putting on screen, and Wolf has one hell of a monster. We glimpse it only for a few moments at a time, but it moves so fast and attacks with such brutality that a glimpse is all we need. When we do see it in detail, Gans gives us a closeup of one part or another, and what we do see is like something out of a Frank Frazetta or Boris Vallejo painting, all spines and teeth and shining eyes. Most movie monsters of late are depicted with such fetishistic realism that I actually welcomed a movie that kept its monster limited to glimpses and momentary hints, the way Alien did so masterfully.
Eventually Fronsac's digging gets him into trouble, but that doesn't put much of a dent in his ambitions. He eventually unravels a gnarled plot about a conspiracy within the Church and a secret society — or was it two? — but all of that is just a skeleton onto which to drape the movie's various indulgences. And for all of its wild inventiveness, the movie is more than willing to hijack whatever clichés fit the bill. I hardly need to mention that Mani knows Indian shamanism that can bring people back from the brink of death, for instance, or that the monster eventually corners Marianne in a crumbling old house, or...
Suffice to say the vast majority of the movie is pitched so far over the top that it's impossible to take seriously. Not that Gans and his crew want us to, I think: he has taken a piece of recent mythology and recast it in action-movie terms, complete with great action choreography, top-notch effects and lush images from one end of the scr een to the other. There is never a moment of this movie that is not either good-looking, fun to watch, or eerie to listen to. Le Bihan as Fronsac reminds me of Christopher Lambert, but he's more attractive and a better actor, and both Dequenne and Bellucci look terrific with or without clothes.
Watching Wolf, I was reminded oddly enough of Gojoe, another movie that took a piece of mythical history and recast it in a visually flamboyant way. That movie took an old samurai legend and inverted the "good" and "evil" characters, recasting them in a revisionist manner. Wolf is far less intellectually ambitious than Gojoe; it just wants to be a lurid eyeful, and in that it succeeds.
That said, Brotherhood of the Wolf is far from perfect. The final third of the movie is ungainly and drags more than it should, despite one of the more inventive showdown/fight scenes I've seen in a movie of this kind (would you believe a cane sword made out of the spine of an animal?). At one point I wondered where things could possibly go for another hour. But it has ambition and vision, and it does something with its energy that is worth seeing.