Brotherhood of the Wolf (15)

The greatest kickboxing horror Western ever made
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The Independent Culture

I usually prefer to avoid the formula "A meets B" to describe a film, but the French action adventure Brotherhood of the Wolf is a special case – perhaps the single most extreme cross-genre hybrid in cinema history. I could say it's like nothing you've ever seen, but really it's like many, many things you've seen before – only in the most outlandish combination. Roughly speaking, Christophe Gans's film is a kickboxing horror historical comic-book detective Western. Or to put it another way, The Scarlet Pimpernel meets The Last of the Mohicans meets The Hound of the Baskervilles meets Sleepy Hollow meets Ridicule meets X-Men. Come to think of it, let's throw in The Flashing Blade, the children's TV serial of yesteryear.

This extraordinary chimera should by normal box-office logic be too esoteric to survive, but it was a massive hit in France this year, part of the new wave of flashy spectacles with which that country is defending its commercial corner against Hollywood. Despite its blockbuster production values, Gans's film could not be anything but French, its imaginative roots firmly planted in indigenous literary and historical soil. It is loosely based on the myth of the Beast of Gévaudan, a strange animal that terrorised southern France in the 1760s. All looks hopeless until two mysterious riders appear on the horizon. Who are those vizarded men? None other than the Lone Chevalier and Tonteau, as it were – Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a renowned "libertine and fine wit", and his enigmatic blood brother Mani (Mark Dacascos), an Iroquois Mohawk with fancy kickboxing skills and a shamanic affinity with wolves.

Gans has put together a confection as big, loud and manic as anything normally fired at us by Jerry Bruckheimer or Joel Silver, yet his film is curiously literate, a fabulously vulgar appropriation of the cinéma de qualité tradition. The narrative takes the ghoulishness of Hammer's historical chillers and filters it through the labyrinthine intrigues of 19th-century potboiler masters such as Eugène Sue and Alexandre Dumas. But even they might have balked at the cock-and-bull extravagance of this yarn, which takes in political chicanery, a spooky mansion, a hairy tribe of martial arts thugs out of Mad Max 2, and an outrageous twist of fortune for the intrepid de Fronsac: with one bound Jacques was free, you might say.

Stéphane Cabel's script has a highly literary polish, right down to its courtly tittle-tattle about the latest Parisian journals. The encounter of the benighted, decadent aristos with the sleuthing de Fronsac is presented as a running battle between superstition and Enlightenment reason – a battle the Parisian wins on points by confounding his dinner hosts with a furry Canadian salmon, a fabricated freak of nature that could stand as a metaphor for the film itself.

Of course, rapier-sharp epithets aren't really what we've come for, and where Gans excels is in his spectacle. This is a very handsome film, a grand Gothic display that uses digitals with stunning invention: quite apart from the rather ludicrous monster itself, there's a fevered dream flashback that uses visual textures I've never seen before. If you relish powders and periwigs piled up with the baroque exaggeration of Sleepy Hollow, or simply the odd sugared-kitsch sunset, then Dan Lautsen's photography will not disappoint. As for the intensity of the colours, torrid is not the word for costume designer Dominique Borg's red velvets.

The classy cast has a distinct art-house sheen: it includes august veterans such as Franju's muse Edith Scob and the bear-like Jean Yanne, alongside the sublimely vampish Monica Bellucci and a serpentine Vincent Cassel, a man who in his relatively brief career has sported more outré hairstyles than Sean Penn and Jim Carrey combined. The big surprise is Emilie Dequenne, the sullen teenager from the Belgian realist essay Rosetta, here all verve and spark as a brittle, haughty demoiselle. Samuel Le Bihan is a solid, likeable swashbuckler, but the real charisma and show-stopping routines belong to action man Dacascos, who may not have many lines, but broods and flashes his buckskinned thighs with shameless abandon. His sulky shaman is something of a cartoon brave, but the script goes out of its way to give the stereotype a little more dimension, and when de Fronsac points out that Mani is not his valet but his brother, he does it in the language of a contemporary of Rousseautackling the prejudices of the time.

Some of Gans's action effects grate after a while, notably his habit of cutting together slo-mo and speeded-up action in the same shot, while some of the beast's savagings are a little more lip-smackingly, bone-crunchingly brutal than they probably need to be. And an unwieldy length means that you give up on the plot twists long before the penultimate false ending. But overall this is brash, unpretentious fun, considering what a sumptuous folly it is. If Gans had offered a project like this to a Hollywood studio, he would have been shown to the nearest padded cell; yet there's more bravado and big-time audacity here than in the tepid blockbusters Hollywood has squeezed out this year. And for my money, it knocks Amélie into a three-cornered hat.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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