Dir: Cristophe Gans. France. 2001. 143mins.
Hailed as the prototype for a new genre-bending kind of popular European cinema, Brotherhood Of The Wolf is a crazy quilt of historical romance, horror movie, frontier saga, conspiracy thriller and martial arts actioner. One can only admire the sheer chutzpah of writer-director Christophe Gans, his indie producer Samuel Hadida and StudioCanal (which bankrolled 80% of the hefty $30m budget) for even daring to consider such an anachronistic Frankenstein's monster of a movie.
But in trying to be all things to all audiences, the film fails to be much of anything other than confused, overlong and not very thrilling. That has not stopped it being a runaway hit at home (over four million admissions in the first month). The film has been extensively pre-sold in overseas markets, with the usual resistance from English-language markets, where the breach made by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is unlikely to widen to accommodate this film.
Gans, whose debut feature was a 1995 live-action adaptation of a popular Japanese manga, Crying Freeman, is a copycat film-maker who seems to conceive of his scenes in terms of the beloved cult movies he wants to pay homage to. This mimetic urge goes part of the way to explaining the film's excessive running time, bloated as it is by superfluous set pieces and subplots that succeed only in slowing down the action and that should have been left on the cutting-room floor.
Although it requires considerable suspension of disbelief, the film's premise is a true historical event: during the reign of Louis XV, a strange beast terrorised an entire mountain region, claiming scores of victims. The mystery surrounding the nature of the beast has never been solved.
The clumsily-constructed script gets off to a gruesome start when a lone peasant woman is mauled to death by an unseen creature on a heath. It is an inland version of the opening scene of Jaws, minus the nerve-shredding imagination that made Spielberg's film such an edge-of-the-seat experience.
Then, enter on horseback the hero, Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood style, a French naturalist (Le Bihan) dispatched by the king to track down, kill and stuff the beast. He is accompanied by his Tonto-like sidekick (Dacascos), a mystical Mohawk Indian. And, as it happens, both are skilled in the eastern martial arts, which allows them to kickbox their way through waves of local human resistance even as they join battle with the nasty animatronic beast designed by Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
Gans has rounded up a multigenerational cast with prestige veterans in secondary or bit roles but the performances are never distinguished. Particularly miscast for romantic duties is Emilie Dequenne, who blazed her way into the international spotlight in Rosetta.
Prod cos: StudioCanal, Davis Films. Int'l sales: StudioCanal. Exec prod: Richard Grandpierre, Samuel Hadida. Scr: Gans, Stephane Cabel. Cinematographer: Dan Laustsen. Prod des: Guy Claude Francois. Eds: David Wu, Sebastien Prangere. Music: Joseph Lo Duca. Main cast: Samuel Le Bihan, Mark Dacascos, Emilie Dequenne, Vincent Cassel, Monica Bellucci, Jeremie Renier, Jean Yanne, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Jacques Perrin