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(2001) (Samuel Le Bihan, Mark Dacascos) (R)

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Horror/Action: An 18th century scientist and his Iroquois companion travel to the French countryside to investigate reports of a terrible beast that's killing scores of people.
It's 1765 and a mysterious beast is killing scores of women and children in the Gevaudan region of France. Accordingly, and not satisfied with the unfruitful results produced by Capitaine Duhamel (ERIC PRAT) in finding and killing the creature, the King sends scientist Grégoire de Fronsac (SAMUEL LE BIHAN) and his taciturn Iroquois companion Mani (MARK DACASCOS) there to investigate the killings.

After questioning a recent survivor of such an attack, the two arrive at the estate of the Marquis d'Apcher (HANS MEYER) where they two meet his grandson, Thomas (JÉRÉMIE RÉNIER), who will assist them, as well as Jean-François de Morangias (VINCENT CASSEL), a one-armed aristocrat, and his ravishing sister Marianne (EMILIE DEQUENNE). Instantly attracted to her, Fronsac proves that even nobility can be fooled by a clever prank, a point that doesn't sit well with most of them.

After an unsuccessful hunt rounds up plenty of innocent wolves but no such beast, the men visit the local brothel where Fronsac meets the mysterious and alluring Sylvia (MONICA BELLUCCI), a seer of sorts who fulfills his psychic and physical needs.

As time passes and winter arrives with more killings, the King relieves Duhamel of his command and sends in his own lieutenant, Beauterne (JOHAN LEYSEN), to resolve the matter. Reduced to just a witness, Fronsac is forced into going along with the officer's solution to the beastly killings. Yet, he knows it won't work, and thus sets out with Mani and Thomas to find the deadly creature. With the local priest Henri Sardis (JEAN-FRANÇOIS STÉVENIN) believing the two visitors to be up to no good, the trio ends up uncovering more than they bargained for as they discover the truth behind the attacks.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
The fun of legendary and/or unsolved mysteries is that, well, they're so mysterious and legendary. Of course, the longer they maintain those qualities, the more noteworthy and enticing they become. Like magic tricks, however, once the truth is revealed, the mystery and allure all but disappear. After all, if Bigfoot was really just some guy in an ape suit and the Loch Ness monster was proven to be only a piece of recurring driftwood, where would the fun be in that?

That's one of the problems found within "Brotherhood of the Wolf," France's answer to the big budget, Hollywood spectacle. Based on the legend of a notorious beast that reportedly killed scores of people in the French countryside during the 18th century - a fact not universally known outside of France but a decent jumping off point for a horror film nonetheless - the picture is a genre-bending epic that's bound to irritate as many viewers as it enthralls.

As written by Stephane Cabel ("Un pur moment de rock'n roll") and directed by Christophe Gans ("Crying Freeman"), the film starts off with a dry land twist on a similar opening in "Jaws," where a young woman is thrashed around and killed by the pivotal beast that we initially don't see.

Notwithstanding the lack of complete novelty, it's a decent introduction to what's to follow, or at least is seems that way. The problem lies in the fact that the filmmakers then apparently felt inclined to reveal more and more of the creature until we're eventually treated to a full view. If you thought that "Jaws'" credibility was shot once we finally saw Bruce the not-so-realistic-looking mechanical shark, wait until you see this.

For such a visually imaginative film that's been gorgeously shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen ("Nightwatch," "Mimic"), the sight of the creature - an obvious and quite fake looking effect be it computerized or mechanical mode - quickly dispatches with any semblance of suspense the film may have formerly contained and turns the rest of the picture into pure camp.

Of course, for some or many viewers, the film's credibility factor will be shot long before that visual revelation, thanks to all sorts of factors. For instance, while I might be mistaken about this, I don't recall 18th century American Iroquois Indians being proficient in Jet Li style martial arts fighting. Yes, not being intent on making a "serious" big budget horror flick, the filmmakers have injected martial arts material, "Matrix" style action and an early Sam Raimi style visual sensibility into the proceedings.

Beyond all of the high octane fighting, hitting and kicking - of which the French were apparently also quite proficient - Gans uses all sorts of fancy camera moves, sudden slow motion footage and exaggerated sounds to punch up the action. The result is a hodgepodge of a movie where some elements are good or at least entertaining and others are decidedly less so. Coupled with the fact that its story becomes more ludicrous as it unfolds - particularly when we learn all of the facts regarding the ultimate truth about the beast, not to mention a certain character's "escape" from both prison and death - the film is something of a mess.

Yet, it's often a mesmerizing and/or enthralling one. That's thanks in part to some of those very problems that may collectively undermine the complete effort but are fun on a case-by-case basis, as well as the film's visual sense and style, and the presence of and performances by various cast members.

Despite one's higher mental functioning obviously picking up on the film's more glaring problems and faults, the more primitive, reptilian part of one's brain is likely to respond to the visual stimuli, as well as the basic "hunt down the killer on the loose" plot that's fueled other films as disparate as "Jaws" and "Sleepy Hollow."

It doesn't hurt that Samuel Le Bihan ("Venus Beauty Salon," "Captain Conan") and Marc Dacascos ("The Island of Doctor Moreau," TV's "The Crow: Stairway to Heaven") are terrific in the lead roles. Sexy, smart and scientific, Bihan's character is the yin to the yang of Dacascos' more natured-centered and physical Iroquois Indian. While both possess a palpable onscreen charisma and chemistry together that help in making the film easier to watch, it's Dacascos - who bears a resemblance at times to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson - who draws most of the attention when he appears.

Supporting performances are generally good, with Emilie Dequenne ("Rosetta," "Oui, Mais") playing the young beauty who captivates Fronsac, while Vincent Cassel ("The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," "Elizabeth") is appropriately snide as her one-armed, aristocrat brother.

Likely to play better to younger viewers than older ones - what with its horror angle and hyperkinetic MTV-style visuals - the film has its moments and a certain, undeniable allure. Yet, its flashiness and eventual, ludicrous plot developments ultimately undermine what could have been a good picture. Proving that Hollywood isn't alone in its capacity to fumble cinematic offerings by trying too hard to overwhelm the viewer, France's "Brotherhood of the Wolf" rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 15, 2001 / Posted January 11, 2002

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