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French Kicks
by Lucius Shepard
January 28, 2002

Based on an old French legend, the Beast of Gauvedon, Simon Bifi's The Brotherhood of the Wolf is pretty much your basic werewolf/intrigue-at-the-court-of-Louis XV/chopsocky movie, a blending of genres that, though substantially cheesy and entirely unrealistic, nonetheless provides two-and-a-half hours of terrific entertainment. Narrated as a memoir by an elderly aristocrat, Thomas d'Apcher, on the eve of the French Revolution, the film tells of a naturalist, Guy de Fronzac (Samuel Le Bihan), sent as an emissary from the court to investigate the slaughter of hundreds of peasants by a mysterious animal agency. He is accompanied by Mani (Mark Dacascos), an Iroquois warrior-shaman who saved Fronsac's life while he was in America and, oddly enough, is the master of a martial art that greatly resembles kung fu. (Indeed, large numbers of the populace, peasants and nobility alike, appear to have mastered this same art, a fact that sheds some new light upon our knowledge of 18th-century European combat techniques.) Upon their arrival at the castle of the Comte de Morangias, where they will be quartered, Fronsac finds himself at odds with the count's son, Jean-Francois (Victor Cassel), a great hunter who has lost an arm to a lion in Africa, and falls in love with the count's lovely daughter, Marianne (Emilie Duquenne), and thence into bed with Sylvie (Monica Bellucci), a high-class prostitute who ultimately proves to be considerably more than what she seems. Mani and Fronsac, together with the young Thomas d'Apcher, set about hunting the mysterious and murderous beast, and subsequently become involved in the political fog that swirls around the bloody events at the film's center.

At this point the plot thickens. And what a plot it is!

A Papist rebellion against the crown; Vatican spies; mysterious gypsy girls; decadent aristocrats; creatively grotesque taxidermy; radically politicized curates; a book about the Beast that is itself an element of a conspiracy; love, treachery, incest, mayhem, etc.--a complexity of story and richness of device worthy of Victor Hugo, all carried along by terrific set pieces (including a hunt that results in the killing of hundreds of wolves), exceptional art direction and set decoration, exceptional fight choreography by Phillip Kwok, digital effects courtesy of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, and the lush cleverness of Dan Laustsen's camera work. Laustsen's fluid transitions alone are worth the price of admission, the most notable being a sequence in which the body of a naked woman morphs into a foggy morning landscape. To say more about the story would be to spoil some of the film's surprises. Suffice it to say that there are a number of surprises, and though the astute may anticipate a few of them, it's unlikely that anyone will foresee the shape of the events that they are designed to illuminate.

Although his role is rather poorly defined by the script, not sufficiently foreshadowed, Victor Cassel, last seen in the policier The Crimson Rivers, makes quite an impression as Jean-Francois Morangias, a man whose mutilated body houses an equally mutilated spirit. His duel with Fronsac, armed with a peculiar whip-sword, is a highlight, and while his twisted demeanor leaves no doubt early on that he is if not THE villain then at least a friend to the dark side, the specific character of his villainy may come as a surprise. In the lead role, Samuel le Bihan comes across as a brawnier Robert Redford, and Jeremie Renier as the young Thomas d'Apcher is suitably wide-eyed and earnest. And then there is the Beast itself, not at all what one expects, but a wonderfully gothic invention that poses a contrary metaphor for the dementia-in-the-disguise-of-reason espoused by the humans who have molded it to their purposes.

Despite its multiplicity of cross-genre components, Brotherhood is most of all an action picture, and though he is sixth-billed, the real star of the film is Mark Dacascos. Perhaps best known in this country for his portrayal of The Crow on television, Dacascos has compiled a solid resume of good B-pictures both here and abroad, films such as Crying Freeman (based on the Japanese manga of the same name), the Hong Kong action hit China Strike Force, and Drive. As a martial artist, he has few peers in the acting profession, and his acting ability is superior to that of most action heroes. He has proven himself capable of playing a wide range of nationalities--Russians, Asiatics, Latinos--and appears conversant with not only kung fu, but also capoeira, ju jitsu, and several forms of karate. Given Hollywood's lust for attractive new faces, it is a mystery to me why he has remained more or less unknown. The role of Mani is written as a stereotype--the classic second to the hero, a strong, silent defender of the good--but Dacascos brings to it dignity, a measure of wit, and immense physical energy and acrobatic grace. Like the best of the Hong Kong action stars, Chow Yun Fat and Maggie Cheung, he is able to externalize the personality of his character in combat, and as he proceeds through the film, whacking out a variety of kung-fu-fightin' mesdames and monsieurs, providing psychotropic medications to the uninitiated and healing the injured, we gain a clearer sense of who Mani is than we do of any other character in the film. His final battle with the Beast and the men who nourish it is a showcase for Dacascos' athleticism and flexibility, time-capsule stuff for action fans.

It would be ridiculous to point out the logical deficits of a film that is so fiercely, joyously illogical and that demands of its audience such a profound suspension of disbelief--the salient point is that it succeeds in this regard due to the vigor and panache with which it has been mounted. The picture's thematic focus could have done with some sharpening, the pacing in its quieter moments might have been improved, and the resolution is somewhat overly cluttered. At one point a dramatically presented hunter sent from the court is simply left out of the remainder of the film. Nevertheless, Brotherhood is of such quality that had it been an English-language movie distributed by one of the studios, folks would be lining up at the multiplexes, and we might be talking about a nine-figure gross. Because it is sub-titled, it will never achieve the blockbuster status here in the States that it did in France. But as an action picture, a pure entertainment, given Hollywood's proven lack of imagination in creating equally weightless and far less enthralling films, it's going to be hard act to follow in 2002.