If a 13-year-old American boy were to sit down and write a list of all the things he's looking for in a movie, the result might be something like Brotherhood of the Wolf. Blood and guts, kick-ass chop socky, a giant warthog from hell, heaving bosoms, subtitles ' oops, where did those subtitles come from? From France, it appears. At a cost of $29 million (petite by American standards, trÃs grand by French), Brotherhood of the Wolf is an attempt to create Hollywood on the Seine. And director Christophe Gans wasn't taking any chances. In cooking up this kung-fu costume-drama gorefest, he and co-scriptwriter StÃphane Cabel have thrown in everything but the kitchen sink. Imagine Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon crossed with The Name of the Rose crossed with Conan the Barbarian crossed with Mad Max crossed with Jaws crossed with any of a hundred different Hammer horror movies. Now set the thing down in the hilly, muddy, bloody south of France. VoilÃ, baby!
They called it the Beast of GÃvaudan, a massive wolf-like creature that, according to local legend, ripped to shreds over a hundred women and children back in the 1760s. Gans takes that idea and runs with it ' no, flies with it. His camera is constantly on the move, swooping this way and that. And whoever recorded the sound put the pedal to the metal. When the beast ' referred to as "she" for some nefarious reason ' roars in the distance, it's as if Zeus himself were hurling thunderbolts from Mount Olympus. And when the thing moves, there's a clanking sound, as if it ate a blacksmith for breakfast. Gans wisely leaves it in the shadows during the movie's first half, letting our imaginations run wild. Then he gives us, first, a peek, then a look, then a whole bunch of extended looks, courtesy of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. A terrible mistake, I'm afraid, and one that the movie never really recovers from. Luckily, there's plenty else to feast our eyes upon.
Cinematographer Dan Laustsen's gorgeous landscapes, for example ' not what I expected the south of France to look like (where are Van Gogh's sunflowers?), but a fitting setting for a fictional world in which life is nasty, brutish and short. Into this Hobbesian state of nature come GrÃgoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his sidekick, Mani (Mark Dacascos), hired to slay the beast. De Fronsac is what I'd call a black-belt naturalist; when he's not taking note of the local flora and fauna, he's whupping somebody's butt. As for Mani, he's the living embodiment of noble savagery, a Native American who not only dances with wolves but receives vital information from them via lupine telepathy. A hoary clichÃ, of course, but Dacascos, whose quiet intensity suggests that Daniel Day-Lewis wasn't the last of the Mohicans after all, has a way of leaving cliches in the dust. Credit his fierce eyes, his sleek body, his karate moves.
Or whatever kind of moves they are. Gans has hired John Woo's editor, Philip Kwok; and the kick-boxing, though cut a little closely (we never see anyone perform a complete motion), is nevertheless satisfying in that bone-crunching kind of way. Gans combines slo-mo, fast-mo and a swirling camera Ã la The Matrix, and the movie feels like a video game at times, especially because the plot doesn't advance so much as lurch from set piece to set piece. It's amazing how little progress has been made toward even finding the beast at, say, the halfway point of this two-hour-and-twenty-five-minute movie, and you start to feel like you're watching an entire season of "Xena: Warrior Princess" in one sitting. But just when you think you've had enough, Gans comes up with a whole new way of turning your stomach. Or twisting your libido into a knot, as when Monica Bellucci's demoiselle de la nuit, writhing in bed with our hero, pulls out a knife, cuts him with it, then licks the blade.
Mon dieu! I wish that Le Bihan, who has Mickey Rourke's eyes and Christopher Lambert's protruding forehead, dominated the movie a little more. Instead, Dacascos runs away with it, despite only a few lines of dialogue. His Mani is called everything but a white man by the French aristocrats, who sit around in wigs listening to the tinkling of a harpsichord, but he's clearly the most evolved one of them all. Set only a few years before heads started to roll during the French Revolution, Brotherhood of the Wolf suggests that, even during the so-called Enlightenment, the Dark Ages were casting their dark shadows. And those shadows crept into every level of church and state. The movie's too long, often silly and about as serious as A Knight's Tale. But it's the biggest movie ever in France, and it's showing on what Point Cinema likes to call The Biggest Screen in the Midwest. What more could the 13-year-old boy in you want?