The competition isn’t exactly stiff, but Brotherhood of the Wolf, a flamboyant 2� hours of pre-Revolution bloodletting, is hands-down the best martial arts film in the history of French cinema. By rights, it shouldn’t work: the genre-bending idea of a creature feature set in 18th century France, with characters capable of the kind of jaw-dropping, bone-crunching chopsockey moves normally seen in the films of John Woo and Jackie Chan sounds like a spoof movie pitch from Robert Altman’s The Player (“OK, it’s A Company of Wolves meets Dangerous Liaisons meets Enter the Dragon…”). Yet somehow it all hangs together marvelously, anchored by fine performances, director Christophe Gans’s strong sense of pacing and atmosphere, and, above all, the film’s rare ability to keep its tongue out of its cheek.
The script (written by Gans, with collaborator Stephane Cabel), seamlessly blends fact (many of the aristocratic characters are based on real historical figures), legend (the Beast of Gevaudan being a semi-mythological figure in France more or less equivalent to Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster), and outright fiction (everything else), to create an exhilarating, genuinely scary, and at times moving film.
As the story opens, the people of rural Gevaudan are living in fear of a huge, wolf-like beast, which preys on women and children wandering on mountainsides and in forests. The film contains a couple of attack scenes, which manage to be graphic and brutal mostly through masterful (and stomach-churning) use of sound, always staying true to the ‘don’t-show-the-monster-too-early’ formula that worked so well for Jaws and Alien. The heroes sent by the king to investigate the beast are Sir Gregoire de Fronsac, a noted naturalist, philosopher and libertine (played with rakish charm by Samuel LeBihan) and his assistant Mani (the moody, athletic Marc Dacascos), an Iroquois Indian he befriended while traveling in Canada (or ‘New France,’ as it is referred to here).
The dynamic duo emerges from the mist on the town’s outskirts to rescue a young maiden and her father from a gang of thugs. Mani steps down from his horse and dispenses with them swiftly, painfully and balletically, while they politely obey all the usual rules of the martial arts movie group attack (stepping up one at a time, staying down when hit, announcing their attack with a loud yell when coming from behind) and the director deploys every camera trick in the book to jazz things up (swift edits, whip-pans, mid-punch camera-speed changes, using slow motion for fetishistic emphasis). As the thugs crawl away on their broken limbs and Mani stands silently with rain running elegantly from the brim of his tri-corn hat (in slow motion, naturally), the movie, while undoubtedly slick, looks in danger of being little more than yet another ill-conceived Crouching Tiger knock-off. Thankfully, as things progress, it proves itself to be a worthy match for Lee’s film, just as broad in scope, just as earnest in execution.
Needless to say, things in Gevaudan are not as they appear, and as the story moves forward the heroes find themselves face to face with the beast that lurks in the heart of man (mais bien sur!). Fronsac falls for Mariane, a young noblewoman of the region (played by the apple-cheeked Emilie Dequenne with just the right blend of pluck and fragility), but still finds time to wander into a slightly gratuitous brothel scene, where he meets Sylvia (Monica Belluci), a voluptuous Italian whose two primary interests seem to be witchcraft and nymphomania. The rural aristocracy are a typically dour rogues’ gallery, especially Mariane’s ghoulish older brother (Vincent Kassel, chewing the scenery, totally unrecognizable from his role in 1995’s La Haine).
Gans is ultimately not interested in fleshing out old standards and making them into complex, three-dimensional characters; he is perfectly happy with two dimensions, and this story does not require more. The character of Mani, whose Indian mysticism, tracking skills, and preternatural, almost animalistic, combat ability (complete with face-paint and tomahawk) raise all kinds of PC red flags, is sensitively handled but remains a stereotype. It is almost touching to be in the presence of a film that is willing to deploy such a character with a straight face, but Mani is at once so noble and so savage that it remains hard not to wince.
The only other real weakness in the film is the way Gans shoots the action scenes. There is nothing categorically wrong with martial arts appearing in a European period film, but every combat sequence is edited to death, so that the audience ends up more impressed with the skills of the editor and camera operator than by the stunt work itself, which looks like it might be kind of special. After all, any old fool can flick a switch and speed up a camera, but if you are lucky enough to have an actor with the ability to see off a whole wave of attackers without catching a breath, why not sit back and let him do his thing?
The highest grossing domestically produced film of all time in its native land, The Brotherhood of the Wolf arrives on these shores backed by an ad campaign which plays up the video-game-speed fight choreography and plays down the fact that the film is in French. The old maxim that American audiences are unwilling to sit through a subtitled film seems not to apply when it comes to martial arts movies, though, and this reviewer was heartened to find himself in a packed house at his local multiplex, with an audience that remained riveted even after it became clear that the subtitles were here to stay, and a second-reel flash-forward to modern-day LA was not in the offing.
The story is firmly rooted in the politics of its day, with the Revolution of 1789 looming on the horizon (a framing device, in fact, has one of the high-born characters narrating the film’s events in flashback, as a raging mob of peasants gathers outside his window). In a way, the beast is the last gasp of hardcore religious fanaticism – the living embodiment of olde-worlde superstition rising from the mud snarling to defend itself against the onslaught of the age of reason. A ripping good yarn in the best possible sense, The Brotherhood of the Wolf has enough on its mind to be gripping even without its high-octane whirling of fists and cracking of bone. With them, though, it is that rarest of things: a film in which the lights are on and there’s somebody home.
– Ben Stephens