- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2002

A grandiose monstrosity if ever there was one, the French costume horror spectacle "Brotherhood of the Wolf" may prove a useful weapon. Feel free to draw upon it whenever anyone French presumes to act culturally superior, especially about matters cinematic.

Reputedly a blockbuster in France, "Brotherhood" unloads a prodigious amount of bombast over 140 minutes, ostensibly devoted to a historical legend that dates back to 1765-66, when a reign of terror in a mountainous province called Gevauden was ascribed to a mysterious beast.

The victims tended to be women and children. Director Christophe Gans, making his second feature, takes a suspiciously morbid interest in ravaged female corpses. They start accumulating with an attack staged on a mountaintop, obviously an homage to the prologue in "Jaws," but elevated from ocean to high country.

While cooking up a politically tendentious "solution" to the Gevauden massacres and taking his sadistic sweet time about cracking the case Mr. Gans evidently hopes to demolish the popular conception of French filmmakers as an exceptionally sensitive and nuanced breed.

Mr. Gans has so much aggression to sublimate that every boot step in a puddle seems to resemble a cannon's roar. In a similar spirit of crackpot belligerence, the dread beast proves so insatiable after his first inconclusive battle with the hero that he skulks away to smash every helpless pumpkin in his path. Bumpkins, pumpkins. What does it matter if your creative dander is up?

The hero, supposedly based on an authentic worthy, is named Gregoire de Fronsac. Portrayed by Samuel Le Bihan, whom Americans may recall from "Venus Beauty Salon" and "Captain Conan," he is the emissary of Louix XV, dispatched to investigate the Gevauden calamities.

Fronsac serves as the Hawkeye or Lone Ranger to a feral Indian blood brother named Mani, who supposedly can communicate with wolves, the species conveniently scapegoated by superstitious or sinister villagers.

Portrayed by an American, Mark Dacascos, who specializes in martial-arts stunt work, Mani is a transplanted amalgam of samurai and ninja.

Fronsac and Mani must fight their way out of repeated unfriendly receptions from the locals, who are drastically outclassed whenever it pleases Mr. Gans to unleash the martial-arts prowess of his heroes.

Indeed, he has to cheat shamefully when tying their hands to allow an edge to the louts and menaces, ultimately revealed to be the blunt instruments of a diabolical aristocratic conspiracy.

I'm not certain what the allegorical significance of defeating the conspirators is meant to be. A portent of the French Revolution triumphant at the expense of corrupt and vicious aristocrats? A portent of the Reign of Terror that

accompanied said revolution? Probably both, because Mr. Gans clearly is a filmmaker who thinks he can have it any which way, depending on the "impact" requirements of any given scene. The movie itself has too many self-evident influences. Fundamentally a werewolf thriller, it borrows indiscriminately from "Jaws," "The Exorcist," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Last of the Mohicans" and "The Mummy." Perhaps Mr. Gans reasoned that he might not get another opportunity to shoot the works.

Some of the noncombative side trips are diverting, especially an interlude devoted to Gevauden's colorful brothel. Emilie Dequenne is an extremely photogenic ingenue and Monica Bellucci an extremely photogenic femme fatale. Vincent Cassel brings some saturnine authority to the role of a seemingly accomplished but also suspect aristocrat. In fact, the performing resources are more than adequate to a costume epic that values glamour more than vulgarity, romantic intrigue more than visceral horror. The eventual unmasking of the beast leaves Mr. Gans at a loss for effectively scary subterfuges. The more he's obliged to show, the more pathetic the quality of his big beastie.

Not that transparent shortcomings seem to have prevented "Brotherhood" from bowling over its public in France. The success of the film there should bring plenty of French mad-dog action directors out of hiding.

Don't be surprised if Christophe Gans' howling monstrosity proves a Frankenstein's monster for the French movie industry.

TITLE: "Brotherhood of the Wolf"

RATING: R (Systematic exploitation of horror motifs, with frequent resort to graphic violence and gruesome illustrative details; occasional nudity and simulations of intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by Christophe Gans. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes

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