A little Sergio Leone here, a little “Sleepy Hollow” there, a grand helping of late royal-era Gaul with its wigs and finery, and, uh, martial arts-style confrontations galore are all deftly melded in “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” an attempt to elucidate the French urban legend of the so-called Beast of Gevaudan — a giant, invincible, wolf-like creature that killed more than 100 people in the 1760s. Highbrow crix may gnash their teeth, but this is a home-grown French actioner that wears its sincere desire to entertain on its flamboyantly tailored sleeve.
One of the most expensive extravaganzas ever produced in France, pic borrows from many genres but infuses the hybrid with a distinctive, relentlessly flashy style that’s sure to appeal to auds raised on computer games and tailored to delight the legions of nerds who support horror, fantasy and sci-fi pics made by fellow aficionados. (Tyro helmer Christophe Gans founded the renegade film mag Starfix two decades ago at age 20.)
Pic has been sold to many territories, but in those still available, distribs with a hankering to attract young auds to subtitled fare — a task that may be substantially easier now that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” has re-broken the long-frozen ice — might be able to turn a profit with this elaborate and slickly made adventure. Pic will seem overly long and a tad repetitive to viewers who can get enough of “Matrix”-style skirmishes and painstakingly overblown sound design, but probably will feel just right to its target audience. All of the estimated 220 million franc ($31 million) budget is definitely on screen.
Inspired by the still-unexplained killing spree between 1764 and 1767, during Louis XV’s reign, pic is told in flashback by a nobleman about to fall into the hands of the great unwashed during the permutation of the French Revolution known as The Terror. Narrative odyssey throws in everything but the kitchen sink: heaving bosoms, witty banter, hallucinogens, political expediency, religious zealots, violent ambushes, helpless maidens, an impatient monarch and enticing loose women — all sandwiched in-between very cool fights.
The film’s major accomplishment is in creating and pretty much sustaining a brooding, quasi-dangerous mood riddled with anachronistic pop touches that somehow fit. The tale feels serious — even though it’s all over the map and about to fall off the edge.
Chevalier Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a naturalist, has been dispatched from his duties in the king’s gardens to track down the beast, and sketch and stuff it for posterity. He is accompanied by Mani (former martial arts champ Mark Dacascos), a Canadian Indian who has little to say to humans but speaks fluent Nature.
De Fronsac takes an immediate liking to Marianne de Morangias (Emilie Dequenne, star of “Rosetta”), the spirited daughter of Count de Morangias (Jean Yanne, amusingly laconic) and his flitty wife (Edith Scob). De Fronsac gets the cold shoulder from Marianne’s one-armed brother Jean-Francois (a snarling, imperious Vincent Cassel), who lives to hunt, fashioning his own silver bullets.
The small town supports a suspiciously well-populated brothel where the dark, mysterious Sylvia (Monica Bellucci) tells fortunes and blandishes her pricey, possibly demonic favors on De Fronsac. Every so often, the unseen beast pursues some fetching innocent and does a Cuisinart number on her with its colossal jaws. Lithe and effortlessly charismatic as the Canadian Indian, Dacascos gets to strut his compelling stuff; as the hunter-naturalist, the versatile Le Bihan is always fun to watch, but doesn’t burn up the screen in the same way as his intense sidekick. Dequenne’s charming and classy perf should silence any curmudgeons who still don’t think she deserved (her half of) best actress honors at Cannes in 1999, while the shapely Bellucci lends over-the-top exoticism to the never remotely staid mix.
The animatronics as well as the contributions from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop don’t top the fighting skeletons in “Jason and the Argonauts,” but there’s plenty of time to speculate about what the beast looks like before it’s finally fully revealed on screen. Gans’ delight in moving the camera is matched by impressive attention to costumes and accessories, as well as pro touches like visible breath in winter-set scenes.