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Brotherhood of the Wolf

Once in awhile, amid the stale predictability Hollywood has to offer, it’s nice to come out of a theater going, “What the hell WAS thatr” For the sake of classification, I’d call it historical fantasy, in the vein of Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow.” It is based upon a real place and time, real events and sometimes even real people, but that is where the historical ends and the fantasy begins.

“Brotherhood of the Wolf” begins by very graphically setting up the premise in a scene that seems to combine the kinetic violence of “Jaws” with the strobing, frenetic camerawork of “Saving Private Ryan.” Thank you, Spielberg. In fact, the film seems to be a two-and-a-half-hour homage to various American and Asian cinema conventions. The story is set in pre-Revolutionary France, where a small province is being ravaged by what is described by witnesses as a demonic creature. It is based upon the true accounts of the Beast of Gevaudan, which was allegedly responsible for over 100 brutal killings in the region over a period of several years.

Our hero, the dashing Chevalier de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his Mohawk/Iroquois companion, Mani (Mark Decascos, of “The Crow: Stairway to Heaven” fame), must determine what is behind the killings and stop it. That’s your basic premise, but it’s no standard Schwarzenegger bughunt. Throw in a bunch of snotty, inbred nobles, a tetchy priest, a nubile young maiden, a prostitute with an agenda, a veterinarian and his wild daughter who is prone to seizures, and you get a small taste of what’s in store… then there’s the fighting.

Good GOD, then there’s the fighting. We get not one, not two, but three showcases of Mani’s incredible ability to fight off a dozen foes at once. Xena Warrior Mohican. Mo Fu. Crouching Mani, Hidden Tomahawk. And that’s just the guy going solo. Then there’s the fighting with the actual hero of the picture, where we catch a glimpse of the French naturalist/adventurer who has understandably picked up the finer points of kung fu while hangin’ with the Mohawks in New France.

It sounds incredibly silly, doesn’t itr And yet, I swear to you, check your brain at the door and enjoy a beautiful, lyrical, disturbing piece of cinema. Acting is very good. Joseph LoDuca did the soundtrack – A ha! I knew there was a Xena connection! Cinematography includes a lot of over-the-top “Matrix Moments”, slow-mo and even freeze frame. There are some nice time-passing dissolves and well-done visual storytelling. The vistas, costumes, sets, lighting and art direction are all first rate. And when you think the plot and politics have more twists than a scoliotic contortionist, another one pops up.

Now the drawbacks: It runs long. Easily could have come in half an hour shorter without harming the story. It is very graphic, very bloody. The non-violent parts are very slowly paced. Be warned, ye who hate reading subtitles, it is in French with subtitles. And the most noticeable thing is the ending… and ending… and ending… and, oh, let’s have some more ending…

…and just a little more ending…

So why did none of these issues bother mer Because it is one of two recent films to perfectly capture the setting of my pet RPG project, Grimmworld (and yes, “Sleepy Hollow” is the other). The film runs like a roleplaying session. Things aren’t quite so neatly executed as they are in American mainstream cinema. The heroes are flawed versions of the archetypes we expect, and to any gamer, that makes them much more interesting! Weird things happen for no apparent reason, and that don’t necessarily further the story. And there’s two metric assloads of melee combat with people, animals and “supernatural” creatures.

For this reason alone I recommend “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” admittedly with the caveats above. Some of you will not like it. Some will not be able to get past the incongruity of Asian style martial arts in 18th century France, or past the horrible parts of the horror. It is as much an homage to Hammer’s and American International’s classic period horror films with Vincent Price and Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as it is to Hong Kong action cinema and Merchant-Ivory romances.

A mixed breed, certainly, and not for everyone. But if you share my love of dark historical fantasy, you will probably enjoy this film immensely.

Rating: A-