“French Historical Drama Martial Arts Monster Movie” is as unusual a genre combo as you’re likely to stumble across in your Netflix queue any time soon, but if you did, you can count on “Brotherhood of the Wolf” (“Le Pact Des Loups”) being in there. Director Christophe Gans trades such mundane trivialities as “facts” for swashbuckling French aristocrats, Iroquois martial arts masters, and a souped-up makeover for the mythical Beast of Gevaudan that terrorized the French countryside in the late 18th century, brought to life here as a fleetingly glimpsed, unstoppable monster!
Samuel Le Bihan heads off the cast as Gregoire De Fronsac, royal taxidermist to the French aristocracy tasked with putting a stop to the killing spree of a mysterious creature responsible for dozens of deaths in the province of Gevaudan. Fronsac is accompanied by his loyal right hand man, Iroquois shaman Mani, played by the great Mark Dacascos. Bihan and Dacascos prove to be a fine heroic duo, Bihan’s erudite portrayal of the brilliant Fronsac contrasting magnificently with the martial arts skills Dacascos brings to the role of a Native American. They are aided in their efforts by Marquis Thomas d’Apacher, played by Jeremie Reneir, while the odious Jean-Francois de Morangias, played by Vincent Cassel, brother of Fronsac’s love interest Marianne, played by Emilie Dequenne, provides an obnoxious counterpoint to Fronsac. Rounding out the cast is Monica Bellucci in the role of Italian courtesan Sylvia, who may or may not be on Fronsac’s side in his quest to uncover the secret of the Beast of Gevaudan.
France, 1764. The province of Gevaudan finds itself under siege by an unseen predator dubbed by locals as “The Beast of Gevaudan”. French knight and royal taxidermist Gregoire De Fronsac arrives in Gevaudan to put a stop to the killings, accompanied by his trusted brother in arms Mani, an Iroquois shaman and martial arts expert whom Fronsac befriended during his military service in colonial America. Most locals theorize wolves to be the culprit, but Fronsac is skeptical of the creature’s existence – the description given by the few survivors of its attacks is significantly larger than any known wolf, and his discovery of a steel tooth in one victim only adds to his doubts. Fronsac’s employers in Paris, fearful that the Beast’s killings will weaken public confidence in the French throne the longer they continue, are willing to do anything to put a stop to them, even passing off a stuffed wolf as the Beast to keep a hold on their power. However, Fronsac will not rest until the true Beast is stopped, and his and Mani’s hunt eventually uncovers a human catalyst to the killing spree of the Beast of Gevaudan.
“Brotherhood of the Wolf” takes its page from the “Jaws” school of movie monsters – like the vicious Great White Shark before it, the Beast of Gevaudan is kept off-screen almost entirely in the first half of the film. It’s nearly 80 minutes before the viewer finally sees the Beast in all its monstrous glory, and what a monstrosity the Beast of Gevaudan is! Created through a combination of CGI and practical effects, the creature is a carnivorous locomotive that belongs behind an electrified fence in Jurassic Park. Even once the creature has finally been revealed, it’s still seen relatively little throughout the remainder of the film, and the spiked armor plates lining its body and obscuring its face ultimately means that we never find out just what the Beast of Gevaudan is.
Director Christophe Gans makes the impeccable choice to keep the Beast as vaguely defined as possible, inviting the viewer to theorize whatever horrifying behemoth of death they can imagine and teasing them with the occasional close-up of the monster’s eyes beneath its armor plates. With the Beast primarily kept lurking in the shadows, the film’s masterful martial arts action takes center stage, choreographed by veteran action director Phillip Kwok and executed by Mark Dacascos and Samuel Le Bihan in equal measure. The film quite literally kicks off with Mark single-handedly trouncing a gang of thieves in the countryside of Gevaudan in the midst of a downpour.
Fight scenes in the rain are often among the most thrilling to see, and the film’s opening truly exemplifies how the inclusion of rain can significantly magnify the intensity of a fight. Mani later finds himself with a target on his back among his and Fronsac’s compatriots for being a Native American, and is forced to take on further swarms of enemies in two fights later in the film. Mark Dacascos is as amazing as ever when he springs into action, stealing the film so effortlessly that many viewers may think of him as Kato to Fronsac’s Green Hornet. Rest assured, Fronsac does eventually get off the bench, but that comes after the undeniable Achilles’ heel of the film, which is it’s slow-as-molasses middle section.
After teasing the audience with the eventual reveal of the film’s titular beast and blowing them away with Mani’s martial arts abilities, the films slows to a crawl as if its hit a road spike. In a film about a beast devouring every local in sight, it feels like a serious detour for the scenes in brothels, romantic footsy between Fronsac and Marianne, and banter among imbecilic aristocrats about how best to approach the situation. Trimming twenty minutes out of the second act would have given the film a much more streamlined and cohesive feel.
How appropriate, then, that it’s the Beast’s first full appearance that revs up the pace and it’s not long after that before Fronsac finally steps up to the plate to unveil his own fighting prowess. There’s a marked difference between his and Mani’s approach to combat. Mani’s fighting style is based on a continuously flowing rhythm, relying on circular and spinning techniques taken from Mark’s background in Wun Hop Kuen Do and other martial arts, his weapons of choice for armed combat being the bo staff and, of course, Native American Tomahawks.
By contrast, Fronsac is a far more savage fighter – adopting a barbaric William Wallace-like look for combat, he pummels his foes with linear attacks from Savate and brandishes a set of broadswords for armed fighting. Indeed, Fronsac makes greater use of the latter, since he’s the more likely of the two heroes to kill an opponent (he’s the only one who ever scalps anybody). A head’s up to the squeamish – the sound effects of Fronsac stabbing and slicing through his enemies are some of the most sickening you’ll hear. You have been warned!
Although hindered by an unevenly paced second act that takes the characters away from the focus of the story, “Brotherhood of the Wolf” is great entertainment for martial arts fans and monster movie aficionados alike. Few blends of genres make as unique or as intriguing a combination, and after seeing the film, it’s safe to say that every historical period film would be even better with the inclusion of a kung fu fighting Native American sidekick.
- All of the major characters in the film, with the exception of Mani, actually lived during the reign of King Louis XV.
- According to director Christophe Gans, the Beast, as it is portrayed in the film, is an abnormally large African lion.
- The historical Beast of Gevaudan was described by eye witnesses as a wolf-like creature with cloven hooves, an unusual color, and a resistance to bullets, but no evidence was ever found to confirm it as anything but a large wolf. According to the official record, a large, grey wolf initially determined to be the Beast was killed in September of 1765. However, the Beast’s attacks persisted after this, until June of 1767 when another wolf was killed, with the autopsy finding human flesh in its stomach. This wolf is believed to have been the true Beast of Gevaudan.