Brotherhood of the Wolf by Christophe Gans (Review)
On its surface, Brotherhood of the Wolf should not work. Now, hopefully I’ll get this all right: a horror movie set in 18th-century France involving a mysterious bloodthirsty beast, political intrigue, drama in the royal court, and copious amounts of kung fu… based on events that actually happened. As wonderful as that formula sounds — who doesn’t like a little European history with their martial arts? — it just doesn’t seem like it would work. But then along comes a movie like Brotherhood of the Wolf that practically delivers on all of its promises, and remains an engrossing and enjoyable movie for nearly its entire length.
In 1765, a mysterious beast is stalking the French countryside of Gevaudan. Noone has been able to kill it, a fact that is alarming to the rest of the country. Determined to bring the situation under control, the king dispatches a botanist, Grégoire de Fronsac (Bihan), to study the beast and help in its capture. Accompanying Fronsac is the enigmatic Mani (Decascos), Fronsac’s blood brother and an Iroquois warrior from America.
Fronsac discovers the situation is rapidly deteriorating. The local militia has proven to be incompetent, a point quickly made when Mani is able to single-handedly trounce a group of them with his fighting skills. After several hunts, no results have been made aside from a bunch of dead wolves. Soon, Fronsac finds himself caught up in political intrigue. The king, afraid that the fear surrounding Beast’s activities might throw the whole nation into a panic, concocts a plan to simply bury the whole matter, regardless of whether the beast is killed or not.
It quickly becomes obvious that Brotherhood of the Wolf is no mere “monster movie.” In fact, we never even see the monster for the first half of the movie, just its victims. This creates a palpable feeling of terror and anxiety that, when combined with the moody look and feel of the movie, is very effective indeed. To be honest, when they finally do get around to showing the beast, it’s a bit of a disappointment.
Although the first half of the movie focuses on attempts to capture the Beast, the second half takes a decidedly more complex twist. The focus shifts to the various political intrigues that were simmering just below the surface of the movie’s first half. As Fronsac delves deeper into the mystery of the beast, he begins uncovering plots within plots surrounding a secret society that may be using the beast, a discovery that may be more deadly than any animal. As dark as the movie’s first half was, the second half feels even more alien and terrifying, if a bit awkward.
At this point, the movie begins to feel a bit like an X-Files episode, if the series had been more inspired by the writings of Umberto Eco and less by Kolchak: The Night Stalker. To the filmmakers’ credit, they never settle for the easy way out. There are parts of the movie that seem a bit too ambiguous. However, it’s not easy to shift from a mere monster movie to one that involves international intrigue, power struggles between the Church and the king, secret societies, superstition, and the social upheaval that was beginning to sweep through France at that time period, and not leave a few plot points unexplained or introduce a plot hole or two.
Thankfully, if the movie gets a bit too much or the plot holes get a bit too big for you to swallow, you can sit back and just appreciate the movie’s visual style (which, in my opinion, ranks up there with The Lord Of The Rings). The filmmakers spared no expense, crafting a rich and vibrant world within the movie, from the elaborate costumes to the gorgeous sets. The cinematography beautifully captures a haunting and terrifying countryside where a bloodthirsty Beast could strike at any minute, but it also captures the decadent court where noone is what they seem. Visually, the film packs enough flair for two movies, seamlessly weaving in visual effects such as CGI. At times, some of the visual effects (such as director Gans’ love for playing with film speeds) seem a bit gimmicky given the movie’s context; they feel more appropriate for, say, The Matrix. But the movie has no qualms about throwing believability out the window.
There’s no better example of this than in the fight scenes that are pop up throughout the movie. Again, it shouldn’t work, and at first it doesn’t. It feels like an awkward attempt to copy Hong Kong’s kinetic cinema (as is the case with every action movie these days, it seems). But as the movie envelopes the viewer into its world, things like a kung-fu Iroquois warrior don’t seem all that out of the ordinary. Sure, there were times when I laughed out loud, such as when the main baddie unleashed his bone-and-chain sword (which looked like something straight out of Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain). But by then, I didn’t really care. Considering everything else I’d seen, I was more than willing to allow the film a little more latitude.
These fight scenes also pave the way for one the movie’s real revelations, that of Mark Dacascos. Dacascos is probably best known for his roles in films such as Only the Strong, Double Dragon, and Drive, as well as his role in the television series The Crow: Stairway to Heaven. But he absolutely rules as Mani, nailing the part of a mysterious Iroquois warrior/priest who also knows a mean roundhouse kick. Dacascos has been laboring in the direct-to-video market for a long time now, but this role should open up all sorts of horizons for him.
Brotherhood of the Wolf follows in the footsteps of movies like The Matrix, movies that manage to combine mind-blowing action and visual effects with a solid, interesting storyline. While Brotherhood of the Wolf may not quite achieve the same pop culture status of The Matrix, it’s certainly another step in the right direction, giving you plenty of eye candy and a fine adrenaline rush without insulting your intelligence. Somehow, I think the facts surrounding the real Beast of Gevaudan (which remains unexplained, by the way), were less mercurial… but I doubt they would’ve inspired a movie as cool and involving as this one.