Brotherhood of the Wolf Shows Its Fangs
Bad horror film. Bad romance film. Bad historical film. Bad action film. Wonderful fantasy film. That's really the only way I can describe Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups), a French film about a werewolf that's not a werewolf, two hunters who aren't hunters, a conspiracy that's not really a conspiracy, and a plot that's just begging to be stolen for your role-playing group. Shhhh. Don't tell your players!
You'll see little pieces from all your favorite movies in Brotherhood of the Wolf: everything from The Matrix, to Princess Mononoke, to Star Wars, to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. On the one hand, this is good reason to pan the film (and many critics have already done so), since on one level it's a tangled, often incomprehensible mish-mosh of all those other films and genres. On the other hand (for the very same reasons), the film is pretty good about borrowing only the best images to string together. It's a patchwork quilt, to be certain, but it's one you'll be comfortable and cozy with if you walk in the door expecting a fantasy film.
Since this is a new film for American audiences, and still in limited release in select markets, it would be wrong of me to rip through the entire plot like I've done with other, older films. There are some important secrets and mysteries uncovered as the film unfolds, and I have no intention of spoiling the movie for anyone who plans to go see it. And you should, indeed, see this film, particularly if you're a GameMaster who's itching to steal a good plot for use in your own game. It would be foolish to call this the best film of the year (after all, we're only a few days in at this point), but it's definitely better than most of the tripe that's come out recently. And far better than (shudder) the infamous Dungeons & Dragons movie.
First things first: this isn't a traditional D&D type fantasy by any stretch of the imagination. It's not truly fantasy at all, being based on an apparently true series of events which took place in southwestern France between 1764 and 1766. However, putting that historical setting aside, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the traditional D&D Fantasy quest: King (of France, in this case) sends some heroes/hunters to track down mythical dragon/orcs/Beast of Gevaudan and kill it/them, thus saving the town/village/city from certain doom. For that reason, as well as the presence of some overtly magical elements, I categorize it as fantasy, even though it's unlikely any other reviewer is going to do so.
If the film has to be grouped into any one category, it would have to be pushed into queue beside the many other "White Wolf" type films (which is to say, movies about vampires and werewolves that are more about dressing up and manipulating people, and less about scary fangs and drinking blood). Of course, there's plenty of gore in Brotherhood as well. Bodies fly hither and yon; blood drips, oozes and spatters; bones crunch horrifyingly as people die in just about every conceivable fashion. And yet, much like a rousing game of Dungeons & Dragons, all that gore is really just a footnote, quickly shoved aside so that the film can get to the real meat of the story. Which is, in the end, about people. It has to be; nobody knows what the heck the Beast really is, and we don't even get to see it until halfway through the movie.
However, don't let that fool you--the film's first rock 'em, sock 'em action sequence comes a whole five minutes into the movie, after Chevalier Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his American Indian blood brother Mani (Mark Dacascos) ride into town in the middle of a rainstorm, trenchcoats buttoned up over their faces like suits of armor, resembling nothing so much as anime characters brought to life. Unsurprising, really, when you consider that director Christophe Gans is an anime fan himself, having brought Crying Freeman to the big screen in 1995.
Mark Dacascos is best known to American audiences as Eric Draven in "The Crow: Stairway to Heaven" TV series (not to mention Freeman in the aforementioned Crying Freeman adaptation), and here, as Mani, he basically kicks all sorts of butt. Try to ignore the fact that he's apparently a trained martial artist, and just enjoy the way he flips around with his quarterstaff, trenchcoat billowing like a Byronesque cloak, feet stamping through puddles of muddy water as he brings doom upon whoever gets in his way. Despite some annoying Matrix-style camera trickery, the fight is well choreographed and cinematographically brilliant.
Through it all, Mani's "brother" Fronsac just sits on his horse and watches. More about that later.
Anyway, the first combat encounter ends, and the two fighters... I mean, the two blood brothers make their way into town, where they start mingling with the citizenry to hopefully uncover the mystery of the Beast. There's more brawling with Mani (including some co-ed brawling where Mani definitely doesn't pull any punches), a wolf hunt, some flirting between Fronsac and the lovely Marianne de Morangias (Emilie Dequenne), some traipsing around a brothel with a mysterious prostitute named Sylvia (Monica Bellucci), and several failed attempts to actually catch the Beast. In other words, lots of role-playing in-between frequent forays into the forest for random encounters.
At some point, the King gets fed up with all the fooling around and sends another of his men down to actually kill the Beast, at which point the conspiracies start to pile up. In the end, Fronsac and Mani end up defying orders to ride back down to uncover the mystery for themselves. This results in a whole slew of strange, unusual, sometimes annoying and occasionally brilliant revelations, including a secret Brotherhood of the Wolf (that's what the film's called, after all), an unexpected death, several apparently miraculous healings, at least a half dozen betrayals and enough mysticism to drown an elephant. It doesn't always work. When it fails, it fails stunningly, leaving you wincing. But when it works, it looks fantastic, and it's well worth the 150 minutes of your life.
As for that Beast... the hints are obvious throughout the film if you're paying attention. Try listening instead of looking and you'll figure it out. And pay attention to where it is all these hunters and adventurers are going to and coming from in their spare time.
To get back to gaming for a moment, this film is a perfect example of how to get a game right. There's a mystery, some heroes riding into town to solve it, and plenty of danger and action. There's also plenty of interesting characters to interact with, including town guards, villains, courtesans, pretty ladies and interfering priests. You've also got an undercurrent of magic throughout the entire story, which sort of bubbles along without ever being exposed for what it is. In the case of Mani, it's an American Indian spirituality that manifests itself in subtle ways, such as his ability to bond with wolves (his totem animal). In the case of other characters, such as Sylvia, the magic is much, much more hidden, appearing in the guise of unspoken incantations, strange potions and poisons, and apparent miracles which, if you think about it, needn't be that miraculous at all.
There are only two major gripes I have with the film, which also happen to illustrate typical flaws in gaming scenarios. These are minor spoilers, so avert your eyes if you don't want to know anything.
First of all, Fronsac is made out to be a scholar, taxidermist and biologist for most of the film, more like Johnny Depp's character in Sleepy Hollow than a true adventurer. He carries a pistol like everyone else, and is apparently a good shot, but for most of the film he allows Mani to do all the butt-kicking that needs to be done. Towards the end of the movie, due to circumstances which will not be discussed here, Fronsac suddenly turns into an avenging angel, Crow-like, suddenly whirling knives and taking down foes like he was Conan the Barbarian. Which is fine... but this aspect of his character wasn't at all developed in the first half of the movie, and it's a bit like your fifth level Wizard suddenly transforming into a 10th level Warrior with no explanation. It's jarring, to say the least.
The second thing that bothered me was the entirely unnecessary addition of a particular "magical" weapon at the end of the film. Throughout, the weapons were truly mundane, consisting of the expected flintlock pistols and rifles, as well as a few knives, crossbows and tomahawks. But suddenly, in the film's climactic fight scene, the bad guy whips out a sword which, well... I won't ruin it here by describing it, but let's just say that the way in which the weapon functions defies the laws of physics. Which just goes to show you that tossing in a magical weapon just for the hell of it isn't always such a good idea, even if the players are clamoring for it.
In the end, what do we have? Let's review:
1. A young hero. Fronsac, taxidermist, scientist and adventurer.
2. A damsel in distress, whom our hero has the hots for.
3. A motley band of companions. Mani is most notable, but there are a slew of other companions, including Sylvia the prostitute, Marianne herself, and another young sidekick who plays a rather important role, in the end.
4. An ancient magic. The Beast itself. But is it truly magical? That's what it's ultimately up to Fronsac and Mani to discover.
5. Wicked evil bad guys. Aside from the Beast, there's a Beast keeper and a whole big Brotherhood of the Wolf. But you knew that from reading the title of the film.
6. Unbeatable odds. Two men against all that? Not to mention a bunch of conspiracies? Even the King gives up at one point. Can they succeed?
Now, how do you work this into your own campaigns? It's a simple three step process:
1. A strange creature/monster/band of monsters is ravaging the countryside in some forgotten corner of the land. Some high-ranking official sends a hero/heroes to dispatch of it, or at least to find out what it is.
2. Once found, the monster is done away with. But it's not really. In fact, the real creature is still out there, and while the powers-that-be are happy to put the whole matter behind them, the real problem remains, and it will be up to the adventurers to decide if they can walk away from it.
3. Of course, when you go digging under rocks, you never know what's going to crawl out, and pretty soon the heroes discover that the monster they're hunting is the least of their problems. Who can they trust? Perhaps only each other. Perhaps not even that.
In all, I once again have to heartily recommend Brotherhood of the Wolf to anyone who's a fan of fantasy movies. It's definitely not a horror movie, and it's definitely not a romance, although it has elements of both those things in it. Even passing it off as an action movie seems to miss the point. The film isn't about action, it's about fantastical things happening to ordinary people, and the attempt to discover the truth behind those fantastic happenings. And that's what fantasy role-playing games are all about.
Well... that, and killing stuff.