How Do You Say Dog in French? 'Wolf'
Friday, January 11, 2002
I don't know about you, but one thing I can never get enough of is watching guys in three-cornered hats kung-fu fight in the mud.
And "Brotherhood of the Wolf," a big-budget French thing, is full of kung fu and three-cornered hats. Way cool, right? No. Way uncool. So much for French haute cuisine du cinema. This one's a turkey as big as the Eiffel Tower but it's bad in a particularly American way: It's wildly overdone, it throws in everything in an attempt to appeal to everyone, it's gargantuan and anti-logical, pointlessly ornate and pointlessly violent.
Plus, it has French people in it!
Certainly the loopiest thing that's come along in many a fair year, "Wolf" is a mad agglomeration of styles and traditions that ultimately results in nothing so much as a mad agglomeration of styles and traditions. Nothing in it really connects with anything else. It can only be described as an 18th-century French werewolf kung fu costume drama with Indians and Gypsies and Italian Western overtones. Oh Lord, you're thinking, another one of those.
The story actually takes place in flashback; the frame around it, set in 1790-something in the revolutionary ardor of Thermidor, introduces us to a nobleman about to meet the incisive Mme. Guillotine and her cutting-edge wit, to the thrills, yelps and burps of an enthusiastic crowd of dirty faces. As he waits, he recalls the most significant event of his time, the gory affair of the wolf. That was way back in . . . yes, I remember it now . . . 1765.
It's a very wet 1765, and France is suffering a variety of plagues: Bourbon kings, high taxes, shrinking peasant wench cleavage, overambitious cinematographers, endless rain and, in a far southern province, some kind of big bad wolf who eats more than pigs. In that sad, damp Gallic cow-pie pasture, two studs from Paris show up, the first a seductive anthropologist-detective and the second a kung-fu-fighting Iroquois by way of the French and Indian Wars.
They have been sent by the crown to investigate the mounting slaughter of women and children by the cunning beast, which appears to be a cross between Rin Tin Tin and a Cuisinart. And they are played by exceedingly attractive men, Samuel Le Bihan (Fronsac the Anthropologist) and Mark Dacascos (Mani the Iroquois), one fair, one dark, one yappy, one silent. But both so pretty. In fact, the movie is largely populated by people of exceeding handsomeness (Monica Bellucci leads this parade, but Emilie Dequenne is another, Vincent Cassel still another), while every nonspeaking Gypsy-peasant-wolfchow extra is a filthy, warty, toothless troglodyte with a face packed in grime, slime and crud. The young director Christophe Gans suffers from an overabundance of nostalgie de la boue he smears boue (mud) everywhere!
Fronsac and Mani work an amusing line: Like the hero in Caleb Carr's "The Alienist," they apply logic and forensics to a series of crimes that have yet to be so analyzed. They interview people. They take measurements. They make drawings. They conjecture philosophically. Mani talks to trees (Indian, remember?). This seems on the way to yielding interesting results, until the movie swells beyond accountability and becomes completely ridiculous.
Then it turns out that not only the Indian (played, after all, by the star of several martial-arts flicks) knows kung fu, but by some weird logic, so too does the anthropological forensic detective, and the next thing you know, he's spin-kicking and dragon-punching with the best of them.
Yet the fighting, which fills so much of the second very long half of "The Brotherhood of the Wolf," isn't particularly impressive. It's a French imitation of American imitations of Hong Kong originals, and nothing feels fresh or unusual, beyond the ludicrousness of time and setting. Worse, it doesn't feel authentic; photo tricks, editing, slo-mo and that sort of legerdemain suggest we are watching not athletes but movie fakes. At least in "The Matrix," Keanu learned basic martial-arts moves. Not so for Sammy Le Bien.
The movie, which culminates in the discovery of a debauched aristocratic cult yes, another one of those, too even manages to make the fabulous natural asset Monica Bellucci boring, in an underused part as a courtesan/papist spy, which figures somehow into a plot so byzantine only Frodo himself could figure it out. It's a very long night at the movies to see guys fight in funny hats.