Martial arts movies that double as historical epics are supposed to be set in Asia. They’re not supposed to take place in the opulent, luxurious, ostentatious mansions of the bewigged aristocracy of 1760s France. Yet 2001’s Brotherhood of the Wolf has the audacity to take these wildly incohesive elements, along with so much more, and mesh them almost seamlessly into one hell of an entertaining movie.
There’s the monster itself—based on the legendary Beast of Gévaudan—a mysterious creature who killed over a hundred men, women, and children in France between 1764 and 1767. There’s the titular Brotherhood, a secret society controlling the monster for their own nefarious purposes. There’s politics, romance, a guy with a sword that turns into a whip, and an Italian courtesan-spy (Monica Bellucci) who’s secretly working for the Pope. At the heart of it all are two knights: the royal naturalist Grégoire de Fronsac (Simon Le Bihan) and the Iroquois tracker Mani (Mark Dacascos), sent by the king to investigate the giant beast terrorizing Gévaudan.
There’s so much going on, Brotherhood of the Wolf should be an absolute mess, but the film has such complete confidence in itself that it works—again, as if a historical epic/martial arts flick/conspiracy thriller/romance/mystery/monster movie set in 18th-century France is the most natural genre in the world. Director Christophe Gans (Silent Hill) moves from badass fight sequence to gauzy romance scene to beast attack to unbelievably ornate historical drama with ease, all of them just a bit overindulgent but in the best sorts of ways. It helps that Gans’ direction and cinematography are marvelously stylish, sometimes mythic, sometimes empyreal, often simply beautiful. If you want a perfect encapsulation of the style of the movie, look no further than the incredible transition from Bellucci’s body, lounging in a luxurious bed, into a beautiful French landscape, which you can glimpse in this trailer (along with a lot of other great stuff).
To be certain, it’s not great that the non-Native American Dacascos was cast as Mani, but the actor has never been better than in Brotherhood of the Wolf, bringing a world of depth and wit to the mostly silent role. It also helps that the relationship between Mani and Fronsac is built on Dacascos and Le Bihan’s incredible charisma together. Fronsac called Mani his “brother,” and their performances, as well as the narrative, prove it. Honestly, all the actors are solid at the very least. None of the film’s other main characters are particularly inventive, and the actors portraying them could perform the roles in their sleep: Vincent Cassel as the increasingly deranged aristocrat/hunter Jean-François de Morangias; Émelie Dequenne as his ethereal sister and de Fronsac’s love interest Marianne; Bellucci as the enigmatic seductress Sylvia. But all of these actors are so talented that they’re compelling by default, and Brotherhood of the Wolf benefits immensely from them all.
The film also benefits from the fact that the Beast of Gévaudan was real. Whether it was an actual giant wolf or some other creature will always remain up for debate, but there really was something that killed people in 1760s France. It killed for sport instead of food, so vicious that its victims were frequently found beheaded, and so powerful that it could shrug off bullets. Without spoiling the film, Brotherhood of the Wolf is based on some real theories about the nature of the beast, including that someone purposefully created it and controlled it. There’s just enough reality inside the movie that Brotherhood’s wilder sequences feel satisfyingly grounded instead of totally ludicrous.
However, the film does need to come with a trigger warning: There’s a heavily implied rape scene, and there’s a long scene of regular wolves paying the price for the beast’s rampage, as they sadly did in reality. Mani is very much the “Magical Native American” trope, and you could argue Fronsac does some cultural appropriation later in the film. So there’s certainly no shame if you want to give Brotherhood of the Wolf a miss. But if you decide to check it out, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful, genre-defying, and highly entertaining film that’s unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Unless there’s another historical epic/martial arts flick/conspiracy thriller/romance/mystery/monster movie I don’t know about.
Brotherhood of the Wolf is currently available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory (be warned, though, because the subtitles are impossibly bad—a big problem if you want to watch the movie in its native French language instead of dubbed in English).
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