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Lickety-Splat 

Brotherhood of the Wolf (R)
Universal Pictures

Beware the new sound system at Kimball's. If you expect to enjoy the sounds of mellifluous French and the rustle of silk dresses in the historical romance/werewolf/ kung-fu flick Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups), be prepared for the domination of a different sound: Splat.

Then, squish. Then: Splat. Squish. Crunch.

Splat, splat, squish, splat, crunch, splatsquishsplatsplatsquish.

Splat.

Sound effects artist Nicolas Becker was clearly hopped up on something when he squashed bushels of tomatoes to make the fighting/ scalping/stabbing/slicing/eviscerating sound slops. Ugh. Sadly, the overwrought audio enhancement was just one misstep in this loopy French blockbuster.

Begin with the script by Stephan Cabel and director Christophe Gans. Clearly fans of all manner of genre films, Cabel and Gans smushed them all together in what might have been a really clever homage. Building off of apparently verifiable attacks on a French village in 1765 by something that probably was a wolf, but might not have been, the writers created hero Grgoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a biologist sent by the king of France to investigate the mysterious attacks.

Freshly returned from New France, de Fronsac's sidekick is Mani (Mark Dacascos), an Iroquois healer who talks to trees, communes with wolves, and generally personifies true harmony with nature. De Fronsac and Mani can also seriously kick ass in the finest Hong Kong action-flick fashion. The rationalist de Fronsac meets up with the superstitious and religious villagers, led by Sardis the priest (Jean-Franois Stvenin), and falls in love with sweet Marianne (Emilie Dequenne), sister of nasty one-armed adventurer Jean Francois (Vincent Cassel). The local nobility resist de Fronsac's insistence that there is nothing supernatural behind the beast, maintaining that it is the devil who has come to live in southwestern France as punishment for the corruption of the Sun King.

Supporting this main group is a cast of characters that are costumed out of Mad Max, wearing nasty hand-to-hand combat weapons and artistic rags. The plot has so many twists and turns that it would take paragraphs to trace them, and you wouldn't believe me if I did. Suffice it to say, you won't have guessed the conclusion before the end actually, mercifully, comes after two hours and 20 minutes.

There's a lot of skill and fun that has gone into the making of this nutty movie. As befits a big-budget film, the cinematography is excellent, especially in the lush outdoor sequences filled with rain and snow and sun. Gans has a good time playing with all sorts of cinematic tricks, including slowing the film down and speeding it up at various strategic, but also random, moments.

Further, there's a little something for every genre lover. If you're a fan of kung-fu choreography and can appreciate the artistry of a good fight sequence, choreographer Phillip Kwok should be in your pantheon of heroes. If special effects are your bag, the monster at the heart of the movie, created by Jim Henson's Creature Workshop, is passable, although the digital imaging is jerky at times. Fans of Merchant and Ivorytype costumes and sets can behold lovely rustling dresses and elaborate period hairdos. And, if you like a little bit of skin, the Gallic proclivity to full (usually female) frontal nudity and overwrought sex scenes is tastefully indulged.

Despite these amusing elements, however, the movie makes several fatal missteps. First, it takes itself too damn seriously. There's far too much navel gazing, enlightenment philosophy, and intellectual and spiritual self-indulgence trying to make a lightweight concept into a deep philosophical one.

Second, it perpetuates ridiculous and outmoded stereotypes. There's the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, the-ingnue-in-distress-with-bosom-a-heaving, and the-seductive-madwoman-in-the-attic just for starters. Then there's the mystic-Indian-in-touch-with-all-that-is-wild-and-weird. The directors may have dressed up Tonto and made him sensitive and smart, but he remains the inscrutable Indian sidekick, man of mystery.

Finally -- and this is just a little point, but it bugged me all the same -- the sub-titles are sloppy and cursory. When you misspell "prey" as "pray" in a werewolf movie, you've either got a smartass or a slacker writing your subtitles. And even a cursory attempt to catch the double entendres and little jokes would have been appreciated.

So, overall, what could have been a truly amusing, bang-up genre-bender ends up falling flat.

Splat.

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