" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

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See also Marty Mapes’ review of Brotherhood of the Wolf

Brotherhood of the Wolf is one of the most promising, most interesting movies of the year. It combines period French intrigue with martial arts choreography, a terrible monster, and a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s unfortunate that the film is too long by a good half an hour and too complicated by about two endings, but in spite of its ambitious deadweight, it deserves a look, particularly now that it’s on DVD.

The Movie

'Brotherhood' is too long and convoluted for its own good, but its look and style saves itBrotherhood of the Wolf is a high-adrenalin action movie. It’s set in 18th century France, and it kicks more butt than The Patriot. Where all-American Australian Mel Gibson smeared his body in the blood of his foes, Brotherhood of the Wolf takes a more international approach to offing bad guys. It adopts the martial arts choreography and cinematography of Hong Kong’s action exports, and neatly integrates them into a spooky, misty France of three centuries past.

A beast (or rather, The Beast) is terrorizing the village and countryside, killing women and children. Men have been called in to hunt this gigantic wolf, but still it preys on human flesh. Sent to investigate is traveler and naturalist Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), who brings his Amerindian sidekick Mani (Marc Dacascos), a sort of last-of-the-Mohicans meets Jet Li.

De Frosnac’s investigation into the lore of The Beast leads him to a fairly clear picture of what they’re hunting. Nearly everyone agrees it’s a wolf, but of enormous size. What puzzles de Frosnac is the corroborating evidence that indicates it has nightmarishly long fangs and perhaps quills or spines growing from its back.

Brotherhood of the Wolf is an interesting mix of ghost story and action movie, of period piece and gothic horror, of police procedural and martial arts. It’s a mix that works most of the time, but not always. For example, the first time you see the French duo in tri-corner hats and 18th-century long riding-coats, defeating four times their number, in a fight photographed Matrix-style, it’s a little ridiculous.

The movie takes far too long to end. A little explication is all the audience needs, but Brotherhood of the Wolf goes on and on. Unimportant details are revealed with great fanfare, and new Shakespearean twists are introduced. The ending is ultimately satisfying, but it comes too late and at too great a cost.

DVD Extras

Surprisingly, there is no director’s commentary track. Seems like a standard feature on DVDs these days, but it’s missing from Brotherhood of the Wolf. It would have been nice to hear the director, cinematographer, or production designer talk about the foggy, misty look of the film. Vast expanses of ground are gray-green, like frost on lichen, and I’d have liked to know how the look was achieved.

Director Christophe Gans does have a presence on the DVD, however. There is a half-hour segment with five deleted scenes. Gans goes on-camera to introduce each segment, then talks about it in more detail afterwards. To my surprise, the scenes, which were wisely cut, were all interesting, particularly in light of what Gans had to say about them. Gans is articulate and unpretentious and would have probably recorded a good commentary. (He even criticized his own direction at one point, which made me admire him all the more.)

Also, the disc has very brief bios for the cast and crew, five paragraphs of “production notes,” and a theatrical trailer whose soundtrack seems to play incorrectly on my surround sound receiver (with a very loud narrator and very quiet music and sound effects).

Picture and Sound

Just for kicks, I turned on the English-dubbed soundtrack. I watched an early scene of nobles talking about politics. The dubbing is not very close, and the English voices failed to capture the careful political nuance of the French performances.

I also noticed that the English subtitles mirrored the English dubbed dialogue exactly, indicating that they were done at the same time. Working for a translation house (and familiarity with foreign films) has told me that translating for the spoken word and translating written dialogue require two different sets of skills. The fact that they are identical says that Universal cut some corners when they made this DVD.

Part of what makes Brotherhood of the Wolf so good is its look. In particular the landscape is amazing. It is rich and textured. It’s filled with subdued colors, and yet the palette feels vivid somehow, like neon gray, if there were such a color. The widescreen transfer to DVD does not disappoint.

The surround sound is used to good effect. In an early fight scene, the movie comes at you from all directions, but then the surround becomes subdued and is used only as a special effect.

My only complaint on the sound (aside from the trailer, see above) is that all the whooshing and clanging in the fight scenes seemed a little too loud. In fact, after the volume had been set, I had to turn it down because the hits were just too loud.

Conclusion

I looked forward to seeing Brotherhood of the Wolf again. Now that I have, I am reminded of why I only gave it a 2 1/2 star rating. I want to like it, but it’s just too long and convoluted, particularly at the end. Ironically, I would have recommended it more highly had I not just seen it again.

Nevertheless, its bold and original look and its successful blend of styles makes it one of the most interesting movies of the year.