What do you get when you mix together Merchant-Ivory period costume drama, werewolf-inspired horror, "X-Files"-type conspiracy paranoia, swashbuckling derring-do, Hong Kong martial arts fantasy, and some gratuitous sex and violence thrown in for good measure? How about the genre-bending French actioner "Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le pacte des loups)", which has been brought to these shores by the execs at Universal Pictures, who are hoping to strike gold à la "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"? And though the action and cinematography are certainly impressive, these end up being compromised by the film's meandering script, making "Brotherhood of the Wolf" little more than a cinematic curiosity or a guilty pleasure at best.
The story is loosely based on a real event, the 'Beast of Gevaudan", a wolf that was responsible for dozens of deaths in the French countryside before it was killed in 1764. According to the script by Stéphan Cabel and director Christophe Gans, the details of this event were far more sinister than as presented in historical records, with the carcass that was presented to the King having been faked and the truth covered up.
The film kicks off with the arrival of Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan of "Three Colors: Red"), an 18th-century Fox Mulder, and his Canadian Iroquois sidekick Mani (Hawaiian martial artist Mark Dacascos, who recently appeared in the Hong Kong actioner "China Strike Force"), who have been sent by the Royal Court to track down and kill the 'Beast'. Though popular belief has it that the 'Beast' is a demon, Fronsac believes that there is a much more down-to-earth explanation for the killings. During their investigation, they cross paths with many of the nobles of Gevaudan, including the one-armed Jean François de Morangias (Vincent Cassel, seen recently in "Birthday Girl"), local clergyman Henri Sardis (Jean-François Stévenin), and the young Thomas d'Apcher (Jérémie Rénier), who eagerly joins them on the hunt. Fronsac also becomes entwined with two women, the beautiful and chaste Marianne (Emilie Dequenne) who happens to be the younger sister of Morangias, and Sylvia (Monica Belluci of "Malena"), a mysterious courtesan with a hidden agenda.
While watching "Brotherhood of the Wolf", I could not help but be reminded of the 1999 South Korean film "Nowhere to Hide (Injong sajong polkot opta)" and last year's "The Musketeer". Like "Nowhere to Hide", Gans infuses his film with the visual elements of anime, using varying film speeds and striking cinematography to emphasize the action, or reveal the beauty found in small moments, such as droplets of water being scattered by a splash. And like "The Musketeer", it seems everyone in "Brotherhood of the Wolf" is well versed in high-kicking martial arts and wu shu swordplay. The film sports a number of standout fight sequences, including the film's opening scene that introduces Mani's prowess with a stick, as well as the film's final over-the-top sword-fight. Indeed, Gans is no stranger to anime and martial arts action, as his previous directorial outings include a live-action adaptation of the Japanese manga "Crying Freeman" (which also starred Dacascos).
Unfortunately, "Brotherhood of the Wolf" also shares the same glaring weakness common to both its predecessors-- a weak script. With a two-and-a-half hour running time, Gans easily could have shaved off at least thirty minutes with a tighter script. In addition to a number of distracting tangents and superfluous scenes (including a visit to a brothel that reeks of exploitation, reminiscent of how dumb buddy cop movies require at least one visit to a strip club), the story loses its momentum often with a stop-start narrative that derails itself every twenty minutes or so. For example, the film's over-extended third act, instead of being focused on resolving the main conflict as economically as possible, takes a number of lackluster detours and spends an inordinate amount of time trying to tie up every loose end. Thus, instead of the slam-bang pacing one would expect of a Hong Kong-inspired actioner, what could have been a fascinating genre-blending exercise becomes mired in its own aimless and frustrating meandering.
"Brotherhood of the Wolf" will likely appeal to fans of Hong Kong 'fant-asia' cinema or martial arts films... and probably test the patience of everyone else. Though the well choreographed action sequences and visual elements come together to create some of the most 'beautiful violence' to ever be committed to film, it is disappointing to find that these moments are few and far-between in such an unnecessarily padded film.