A story of survival, revenge and murder in the frozen north, "Shadow of the Wolf" has all the sublety of a silent movie serial. Reportedly, at more than $ 30 million, the most expensive Canadian production ever, this wilderness epic features an oddball international cast enacting the tragic confrontation between native North Americans and encroaching whites in the Arctic, circa 1935. Long in production and even longer in post-production, pic is too simple-minded and cliched for adults, but probably too rough and unpleasant for kids. B.O. forecast is chilly.

A story of survival, revenge and murder in the frozen north, “Shadow of the Wolf” has all the sublety of a silent movie serial. Reportedly, at more than $ 30 million, the most expensive Canadian production ever, this wilderness epic features an oddball international cast enacting the tragic confrontation between native North Americans and encroaching whites in the Arctic, circa 1935. Long in production and even longer in post-production, pic is too simple-minded and cliched for adults, but probably too rough and unpleasant for kids. B.O. forecast is chilly.

Much-honored source novel, “Agaguk,” by the late Yves Theriault, has long been required reading in Quebec schools. As fashioned here by scripters Rudy Wurlitzer and Evan Jones, tale relates the maturation of a young Inuit Eskimo hunter who, out of violent hatred for whites, is banished by his shaman father, impetuously kills a trader and, in the company of the local young beauty, forges a difficult life on the tundra in defiance of his father’s edicts. Exploding with rage and youthful passion, Agaguk is an adamant Inuit separatist who believes his father has sold his people out by dealing with the Canadians for guns and booze. But Agaguk doesn’t have all the answers either, and has a distinctly caveman attitude toward his female companion, Igiyook, telling her, “A woman does not ask questions” and demanding that she give him a son.

Things get messy back in the village when a Mountie comes searching for the trader’s killer. Eventually, everything comes full circle, Agaguk, who’s not so angry anymore, returns to the village to accept the mantle of maturity — responsibility — from his father.

Unfortunately, the film borders on the laughable throughout due to dialogue that erases the distinction between simple and simple-minded. Almost a parody of typical Indian dialogue from old movies, most of the lines are declarative grunts along the lines of “My son will be a great hunter,” or “We must go.”

One nice twist has Igiyook becoming a great huntress after Agaguk is incapacitated from a bloody fight with a wolf. After a sex scene notable for its explicitness in a PG-13-rated picture, Agaguk even becomes open-minded enough to tell her “Next time, I want that you give me a girl.”

Led by the ferociously hot-blooded Lou Diamond Phillips as Agaguk, cast acts with a heavy seriousness that compounds the problems of the elementary dialogue. As the compromised father, Japanese great Toshiro Mifune lends his imposing presence, but is obviously dubbed. Jennifer Tilly contributes the behavioral grace notes as the young woman who bravely manages to cope with fierce elements and a less-than-congenial man.

Lensed in widescreen under what can only have been very arduous conditions, pic has its moments pictorially, but misses the scenic splendors of similar past films ranging from “Eskimo” to “The White Dawn.” Jacques Dorfmann, in his second directorial outing after a considerable career as a French producer, hits the obvious dramatic notes but doesn’t seem aware of the risible elements.

An array of Oscar winners, including lenser Billy Williams, editor Francoise Bonnot and composer Maurice Jarre, have been recruited to enhance the production values, but even they can’t disguise the patchwork nature of the overall effort.

Shadow of the Wolf

(Canadian-French -- Eskimo drama -- Color)

Production

A Triumph release of a Vision Intl. and Mark Damon presentation in association with Transfilm Inc. and Eiffel Prods. S.A., with participation of Canal Plus. Produced by Claude Leger. Executive producer, Charles L. Smiley. Co-producer, Jacques Dorfmann. Directed by Dorfmann; screenplay, Rudy Wurlitzer, Evan Jones; adaptation by David Milhaud, based on the novel "Agaguk" by Yves Theriault.

Crew

Camera (Sonlab color; CinemaScope), Billy Williams; editor, Francoise Bonnot; music, Maurice Jarre; production design, Wolf Kroeger; costume design, Olga Dimitrov; directors, first and second crews, Pierre Magny, Christian Duguay. Reviewed at the Culver Studios, Culver City, Jan. 18, 1993. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 112 min.

With

Agaguk ... Lou Diamond Phillips Kroomak ... Toshiro Mifune Igiyook ... Jennifer Tilly Brown ... Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu Henderson ... Donald Sutherland
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