This is a re-posting of a review originally published in the Sword’s Edge E-Zine‘s Dec 2002 issue.
It is pre-Revolutionary France, the Ancien Regime is teetering on the brink, and a wolf, called the Beast, terrorizes Gevaudan, a remote part of the kingdom. Based on a true story, though devising its own theories, this is Brotherhood of the Wolf. Fronsac, a naturalist from Paris arrives with his mysterious Mohawk companion, to hunt the Beast. Instead, Fronsac becomes embroiled in the politics and romance of the town, both with the beautiful young daughter of a noble family and an exotic Italian courtesan.
The entrance of Fronsac and Mani–his Mohawk blood brother–is anything but subtle, as Mani indulges in ass-whopping that could have come straight out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Everyone in Gevaudan has been hunting the Beast, but Fronsac has hunted and fought in the wilds of New France (or, as we like to call it, Canada), and is interested in the scientific, not the spiritual. Mani, on the other hand, was a shaman in his tribe. The two both exhibit disgust at the mass killings of the wolves in the area, and Mani, in particular, seems to have some affinity for the animals.
I’m not going to go into the movie’s plot any further than that. Think about walking into the Matrix or the Sixth Sense without any clue of what to expect. This is a great movie, well worth the price of a ticket, and parts of its fun is its reveals.
With touches of horror, occult, fantasy, historical romance and action, Brotherhood of the Wolf is an astounding blend of multiple genres. Director Christophe Gans does not cling to tradition, but throws everything into the blender with wild abandon. For me, it worked. I loved the mixture. I have no problem with anachronistic martial arts in 18th century France, anymore than I have a problem with the aspects–subtle as they were–of occultism and magic. If seeing a Mohawk going Jet Li on a bunch of guys leaves you cold, you might want to give this movie a pass.
The thing about the mixture of genres is that none of them dominate. They mix together smoothly. The horror element, which one might expect to stand at the forefront, is tastefully understated for most of the film. The Beast is not revealed until well past the middle of the movie, and when it is–in a flashback scene–it is eerily portrayed in a misty landscape of greys. This is no gross-out, special effects laden monster movie. The Beast is well-rendered, though the SFX may not be up to Hollywood ultra-budget standards. More frightening, to me, was the power behind the Beast, but that is all I will say on that subject.
The characters in the movie, at least the main characters of Fronsac and Mani, contributed greatly to my enjoyment of the movie. Fronsac is a man of science, a man of reason, looking for the reasonable explanation. Is the Beast a devil? Of course not, it’s some kind of wolf, but what kind? Fronsac examines bodies, looks for material evidence: he’s Scully from the X-Files. Mani may, on the surface, be the stereotypical stoic Native Canadian, but below the placid surface churns a tempest. We can see the disgust in his eyes, in a flicker of his features, as the people of Gevaudan hunt down the packs of wolves native to their land, slaughtering them in the hopes of killing the Beast. To follow the X-Files analogy, Mani is sort of a mixture of Doggett and Mulder.
And the action, my oh my, the action. Granted, I would have preferred cinematography similar to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, if only to follow the fight scenes better. Still, the action was well choreographed, and although I doubt there were so many martial arts experts in Ancien Regime France, Christophe Gans worked it into the movie with a very deft touch.
Overall, I would have to give a big thumbs up to Brotherhood of the Wolf. Out of a possible five stars, I’d give it four. There were moments when my willing suspension of disbelief was strained, and there were some plot threads that seemed to be forgotten, but overall, I enjoyed my time in the theatre. I didn’t focus on the movie for days on end, as I did with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but I did really want to see more. I’ll definitely buy the DVD when it comes out (in fact, I purchased the 3-disc special edition).
Remember, though, this is a French movie, which means, most likely you’ll be reading subtitles. If that bothers you, walk on. If you are literate, it shouldn’t impede your enjoyment of this fine feature.
As for this movie and Dungeons & Dragons–if you like Ravenloft, I highly recommend you check this movie out. It gave me tons of gaming and character ideas, and made me look at the quarterstaff in a whole new light!
Update: Time has been very kind to this movie, and I have watched it multiple times since seeing it in the theatre. I picked up the 3-disc special edition of the DVD when it came out. This is far from a perfect movie, but it is a great one. There is a lot of sincerity in the portrayal of characters which adds weight to its impact. This movie remains one of my favourites, its audacity is a huge part of that. I can’t think of another movie like it, or at least one that delivers on its promise nearly as well.
You can find the original review here.