Sure to be the year's best film to mix martial arts, 18th-century European costume drama, historical allegory, and horror, Christophe Gans' The Brotherhood Of The Wolf assembles elements that might have seemed random had the director and co-writer not linked them so seamlessly. Based on a true scare that had a portion of the French countryside living in fear of a woman- and child-slaying wolf-beast in 1764, Brotherhood places a skilled explorer, scientist, sketch artist, and investigator (Samuel Le Bihan) and his loyal Native American sidekick (Mark Dacascos) in the thick of the action, attempting to puzzle out the true nature of the creature locals have dubbed The Beast. (How Le Bihan and Dacascos became experts in kung fu, the film never explains. It just lets the frequent fight scenes tell their own story.) Soon the hunt is on, and Le Bihan begins dividing his time between an independent-minded young aristocrat (Emilie Dequenne) and a mysterious Italian prostitute (Monica Bellucci) as he investigates the killings. Gans doesn't so much erase the lines between his chosen genres as pretend they never existed, as if powdered wigs, parlor-room conspiracies, political and philosophical strife, slavering beasts, kickboxing, and Native American mysticism have always traveled together easily. He does serve some areas better than others. Whoever has been booking Jet Li's films should get him Gans' number, because Brotherhood's martial-arts sequences have a fluidity and an internal rhythm generally not seen in the West. Switching gears to horror and using Jaws as his model, Gans wisely withholds The Beast for much of the film, then ensures it doesn't disappoint when it finally makes an appearance. Though its deftly executed action scenes and skillfully engineered moments of suspense stand out, the film wouldn't work as well without Gans' generous pacing, though the same quality turns against him as the film drags past the two-hour mark. As unafraid to stop the plot for a battle royal between Dacascos and what seems like an entire nomadic tribe as he is to dwell on a historical oddity or a minor character, Gans wants to allow viewers to take it all in. That task may prove a bit too daunting in the end, but it's impossible not to admire what, apart from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, may be the most ambitious action film since The Matrix.
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