Brotherhood of the Wolf, the best 18th-century French kickboxing costume drama of 2002, is a wonder of magpie postmodernism, a samurai adventure with Hong Kong action and a wry touch of American Western, all sewn into a free interpretation of Gallic history that also has its finger on the pulse of current social trends. Like Charles Shyer’s The Affair of the Necklace, this gorgeously bloody, divinely flighty film from cult director Christophe Gans (Crying Freeman, Necronomicon) builds on real events foreshadowing the comeuppance of the French aristocracy. That’s all Brotherhood has in common with Shyer’s tepid picture, for here the metaphor for the decline and fall of a corrupt and decaying elite is not a royal bauble fallen into the wrong hands, but that durable staple of Gothic horror, a wild beast that preys on the innocent.
As legend has it, the Beast of Gévaudan roamed a rural province during the reign of Louis XV, dining out on the innards of women and children. With the peasants revolting at home over excesses at Versailles and his international reputation in tatters from bickering with the British over possession of American colonies, Louis tried to regain street cred by parading a gussied-up garden-variety wolf through the streets of Paris as proof of his power to vanquish evil — only to look like a fool as the actual Beast continued to polish off proles by the dozen. As the movie opens, the king has dispatched eminent scientist Gregoire de Fronsac (played by eminent beefcake Samuel le Bihan), along with a muscle-bound Iroquois blood brother named Mani (Hawaiian martial-arts champion Mark Dacascos), to investigate.
Unlike de Fronsac, Mani — taciturn, half-naked, dumbly heroic — is a wholly invented character, a vision of Native Americanhood scarcely more evolved than that offered in boys’ adventure comics of the 1940s and ’50s, yet updated into a kind of manga culture hero whose fight sequences are meant to thrill and arouse the young male demographic of the 21st century even as Gans articulates a critique of racism. Similarly, the tasty local wench Marianne (Emilie Dequenne, light-years away from her prize-winning performance as the frumpy young vagrant in the Dardennes brothers’ Rosetta) who catches de Fronsac’s eye makes a calculated reach for the attention of their 21st-century dates. With his reverence for nature and penchant for dancing with wolves, Mani is a Rousseauian figure, the noble animus of de Fronsac’s Enlightenment rationalist. Which means that neither man will go over big with the locals of Gévaudan, who prove in more ways than one to be a far more feral and frightening lot than the Beast itself, a perversely endearing critter out of the Jim Henson Creature Shop. Indeed, Brotherhood has its goofy side — it’s a sleek, creepily atmospheric popcorn entertainment.
Still, Gans’ intellectual ambition flies higher than mere commercial instinct. True to genre, Brotherhood suggests that the beasts we invoke are projections of our own corrupt lusts and fears. Gans toys cleverly with our expectations that the Beast will symbolize the coming revolution, then veers off into terrors that couldn’t be timelier if he’d planned it that way as de Fronsac and Mani discover that the community’s spiritual-political bedrock lies in far muddier waters than any insurgent of the period could have anticipated. No travel-poster South of France, this: Gévaudan is a dark, dank outpost, drenched with rain and fogged by a sense of foreboding that erupts into outright horror whenever the Beast strikes. Giddily over the top it may be, but Brotherhood of the Wolf offers a sobering reminder that extreme times bring extreme reactions, and that we are far from the first — nor, no doubt, will we be the last — to feel the random sting of the righteous fanatic.
BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF | Directed by CHRISTOPHE GANS | Adapted by STEPHANE CABEL and GANS from an original script by CABEL | Produced by SAMUEL HADIDA and RICHARD GRANDPIERRE | Released by Universal Focus At selected theaters