Brotherhood of the Wolf
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

From 1764 to 1767, the French countryside of Le Gevaudan was under siege by an unknown beast. The mangled bodies of its victims littered the hillsides. Witnesses reported seeing a beast as large as a cow. Hunters pumped rifle balls into the beast, but within days afterwards, the killing spree continued. King Louis XV ordered soldiers to Gevaudan, where they searched the forests and hills, shooting every wolf they could find. But still the beast remained at large. In the summer of 1767, the Marquis d'Apcher brought together an army of trackers and hunters who tracked down the beast and surrounded it. At dusk the creature charged its pursuers. Musket fire brought down the beast. But what was this creature? According to historical records, a wolf was stuffed and paraded through the villages of Gevaudan as evidence that peace had been restored. But was this in fact the creature? Jean Castel--the man whose musket fire is generally credited with killing the beast--said he saw the beast walking erect. Much of the hunting party claim the beast was a werewolf. But that's not possible, right? Werewolves don't exist, do they? The Beast of Gevaudan remains one of the great "X-File" cases of recorded history.

This horrific story forms the basis of a new French movie from director Christophe Gans, Brotherhood of the Wolf. Gans (who first scored with Crying Freeman in 1995) clearly wasn't satisfied with explanations that the creature was a wolf, so he devised (in collaboration with screenwriter Stephane Cabel) a new, startling solution. Only the first third of the film remains true to the generally recorded version of the events before Gans shifts into his astonishing and elaborate explanation. Historical drama this ain't. Gans has crafted a most unlikely French film. With its gloriously kinetic battle scenes and gravity defying acrobatics, Brotherhood of the Wolf looks like nothing so much as a Hong Kong production, such as Bride With White Hair, which means the emphasis is upon the supernatural and the fantastic. Gans has crafted one of the most stunning action films to ever come from Europe. This is a rare creation, a French film filled with special effects that moves with frightening momentum.

Gans' film focuses on a naturalist named Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) who is entrusted by the Royal Court with investigating the killings at Gevaudan. Fronsac arrives accompanied by his Mohawk Indian blood brother, Mani (Mark Dacascos). Together they strike studly poses, clad in ankle length overcoats like refugees from Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, while casting piercing, mysterious gazes over the countryside and preparing to battle the beast.

It's easy to make fun of Brotherhood of the Wolf. Gans' film is all about style and surface gloss. But it's also absurdly compelling, a guilty pleasure of hyperactive motion that seduces viewers with it breathy moans, verdant spaces, and wildly imaginative theorizing.

Mark Dacascos' presence helps push the movie closer yet to the world of Hong Kong cinema. A real life kung fu champion in Europe, he twirls and bounds through the air, his arms and legs becoming a blur of thrusts and jabs. Carrying much of the movie's considerable burden in the fight scenes, Dacascos becomes a reincarnated Bruce Lee, playing Kato to Le Bihan's Green Hornet. Le Bihan pales in comparison to Dacascos. He's a bland, muscular pretty boy who lacks a compelling inner life. The movie is seriously marred by Le Bihan's virile-but-insubstantial presence. But thankfully this isn't a movie about acting and characterizations. It's about rapid-fire editing, stunning cinematography (by Dan Laustsen), and surprising bursts of CGI effects (supplied by Jim Hensen's Creature Shop). And on these terms, Brotherhood of the Wolf is a glorious success, a wonderfully mysterious amalgam of demonic and magical elements.

Its closest American antecedent is Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow--a movie it resembles quite closely in many respects: both movies focus on an investigator entrusted by the government to travel to a remote village and determine the cause of recent killings. But while Burton's color palette was limited largely to grey and black, with flashes of white and red, Gans works with a wider range of colors, allowing blues and greens and golden hues. More importantly, however, Brotherhood of the Wolf remains infinitely more compelling through its own plausibility. Even while the story leans toward the mythical, Gans keeps the movie's more fantastic elements in check, with only a couple exceptions, such as an unfortunate sequence that resembles the opening of Jaws (which might be considered homage if it weren't so contrived).

Gans' methods are very much in tune with the language of contemporary action films, but he remains respectful of the original legend while simultaneously envisioning a solution that tethers the beast to reality. Paradoxically, the more we know about the beast, the more intriguing it becomes. Even when Gans finally pulls back the curtains and reveals the beast, he still manages to maintain an aura of mystery. So instead of becoming a killjoy set on destroying the mystery of the Beast of Gevaudan, Gans allows at least part of the mystery to survive his cinematic onslaught, and therein lies the secret of this movie's considerable success, as evidenced by the huge box-office returns throughout Europe.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Universal Pictures
Movie Web site: Brotherhood of the Wolf



Photo credits: © 2001 Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.