Dir/scr: Nikolai Lebedev. Russ. 2006. 136mins.

Russia's first proper foray into Tolkien-style fantasy film-making, Nikolai Lebedev's Wolfhound proves to be something of a mixed bag. On the one hand this holiday release feels formulaic, derivative and uneven in terms of acting and pacing; on the other it has enough novelty in its distinctly Slavic demeanour, subtext and production design to pique interest from audiences both home and abroad.

In Russia leading independent distributor Central Partnership releases Wolfhound on a record 600 prints from January 1 at the start of the eight-day holiday. At home it should tap into readership for the book (1.2m-plus copies sold since 1996, a record for a homegrown fantasy novel) as well as the Russian yen for special-effects-laden fare, evidenced by the success of horror-fantasy adaptations Night Watch and its sequel Day Watch (the latter was also a January holiday release).

The film has also benefited from an unprecedented $6m marketing budget for a Russian feature, as well as tie-ins including a trio of video games and a 12-part prequel TV series, Young Wolfhound.

Beyond Russia it is likely to play as something of a post-Lord-Of-The-Rings fantasy curio, especially among audiences who showed interest in Night Watch ($33m worldwide). But while its effects are of a similar quality to that Russian horror-fantasy (SFX house Dr Picture Studio worked on both), Wolfhound is less bombastic and whimsical and takes itself much more seriously: distributors are advised to trim some of its longeurs. Territories pre-sold include Brazil, and Thailand.

Wolfhound (Bukharov), a mighty warrior from the Grey Hound tribe, sees his family slaughtered when he is a child by Zhadoba, an evil masked priest vaguely reminiscent of Tolkein's dark lord Sauron, and his henchman the Man-Eater (Domogarov).

Enslaved, Wolfhound grows up dreaming of revenge and later escapes. As an adult he kills Man-Eater and frees several of his captives, including the wise man Tilorn (Budraitis) and the slave girl Niilit (Sviridova).

The warrior then heads for the wooden city of Galirad, seeking revenge against Zhadoba, an acolyte of the malevolent goddess Morana. The deity has been imprisoned under a spell cast by, among others, Princess Helen (Akinshina), who is betrothed to the Man-Eater's son Vinitar (Bely) to keep the peace. Zhadoba seeks to free Morana by spilling the blood of Helen - but the princess now has Wolfhound as her bodyguard.

Directed by Nikolai Lebedev (World War II action-drama Star), one of Russia's most promising young film-makers, Wolfhound suffers from something of a formulaic and derivative plot, including an opening sequence that retreads John Milius's Conan The Barbarian.

The pacing would have benefited from a more chronological progression to present its main character's life rather than following a non-linear flashback tack which dampens its philosophical message.

Yet despite its drawbacks, Wolfhound does offer food for thought amid its fantasy adventure trappings, presenting a novel and intriguing philosophical slant as to whether its hero should continue his cycle of revenge. Throughout Wolfhound's conscience, in the form of visions of a female spirit, questions whether he can truly deviate from his seemingly fated cycle of death and slaughter.

Acting is of variable quality - unsurprising given that this is Russia's first Lord Of The Rings-style fantasy - with support generally faring better than the leads. TV heartthrob Alexander Bukharov and Oksana Akinshina look appropriately wide-eyed, but neither leaves much impression and their love story is underdeveloped. Nina Usatova, as the leader of the savage Kharyuk people, is more memorable, playing for comic relief and stealing every scene she is in.

CGI and special effects are initially used for establishing shots but build until they go full-bore in the closing magical battle sequence. Shot on a comparative shoestring (the film overall only cost $10m), they nevertheless punch above their weight and make the feature resemble a Hollywood production in the $40m - $50m range. Their effect is enhanced by widescale use of 1,800 extras and extensive shoots both on-location and nine different sound stages. Fight scenes are of variable quality: some are pretty sloppy and simply a blur of swords and grunts.

Photography is atmospheric, well lit and generally melds with the computer-generated effects, although the noticeable use of facial close-ups, presumably with an eye on subsequent TV play, sometimes feels gawky. Well judged production design and costumes look suitably exotic, drawing on Slavic archaeology.

Production companies/backers
Central Partnership
Russian Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography

International sales
Central Partnership

Russia & CIS distribution
Central Partnership

Executive producer
Ruben Dishdishian

Sergei Danielian
Aram Movsesian
Yury Moroz

Valery Martynov
Irek Hartowicz

Lydia Millioti

Production design
Lyudmila Kusakova

Alexei Rybnikov

Main cast
Alexander Bukharov
Oksana Akinshina
Igor Petrenko
Alexander Domogarov
Anatoly Bely
Natalya Varley
Juozas Budraitis
Yevgeniya Sviridova
Artyom Semakin
Andrei Rudensky