Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Wolves and Scorpions

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Wolves and Scorpions

Brotherhood of the Wolf (France, 2001)

The boom in heroic fantasy novels in the wake of the success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Conan revival means there is plenty of imaginative literary fodder available for film adaptations, providing heroes, villains, and plot structures ready-made for cinema. But there are also original fantasy films, of course, movies with stories and scripts written for the screen rather than drawn from books. These are often wilder and less moored to reality than their literary siblings, occasionally resulting in unlooked-for gems that are enjoyable even for repeated viewings, especially when created by a director with a strong, personal vision.

But just as often we get a by-the-numbers retread made by Hollywood hacks that is, at best, merely professional entertainment. This week we have one of each from just past the turn of our current century.

The Scorpion King

Rating: **
Origin: USA/Germany, 2002
Director: Chuck Russell
Source: Universal Blu-ray

This Heroic-Fantasy-Lite™ movie is a spin-off from and prequel to the Brendan Fraser Mummy adventures, only even dumber and more predictable than those. It takes place in a pre-Egyptian ancient world indistinguishable from Conan’s Hyborian Age, a barbaric but low-magic setting heavier on blades and arrows than spells and summoned monsters. Its mighty-thewed hero, Mathayus (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, in his first starring role), is a warrior-assassin who is also pretty much Conan the Barbarian in all but name, though Conan is a genius compared to this doofus, whose sole plan in nearly every contingency is to draw his bigass sword and charge the opposition, regardless of number. (Legendary assassin, my sainted mother’s posterior.)

That means there’s a lot of fighting in this movie, which helps make up for its utter lack of plot, interesting characters, and original ideas. The combat is cartoon carnage, bloodless and weightless and verging on slapstick — you don’t believe any of it for a second, but it’s slick and quick and goes down easy without frightening the young ‘uns.

The cast are professional enough to speak their hackneyed and clichéd lines without looking embarrassed, so props for that. As Mathayus, The Rock isn’t required to exert anything but his well-oiled muscles and boyish charm, and those get him through. His main antagonist is a tyrant named Memnon (Steven Brand), who has the exact speech and mannerisms of an English corporate CEO, which makes him terrifying. As required by statute, Mathayus has a roguish comic sidekick named Arpid (Grant Heslov) who dutifully imitates every other comic sidekick in the history of cinema without adding a thing.

As romantic interest, there’s a sorceress of sorts who is named, inevitably, Cassandra (Kelly Hu), a dewy ingénue who has mystic visions that have no purpose other than to add false suspense by intimating that something awful might occur, no, really, next time for sure. Worse (in so many ways), she has power only as long as she remains a virgin, so we know that ain’t gonna last.

There’s more. There’s a sympathetic but doddering alchemist who invents black powder so the film’s final ten minutes can be filled with gigantic Michael Bay-style explosions. There’s an adorable street urchin who pops out from behind curtains to hit guards on the head with an iron skillet. There are harem jokes and “exotic” dancing and a funny camel. You’ve seen it all a hundred times before.

And lo, there were many sequels.

Brotherhood of the Wolf

Rating: ****
Origin: France, 2001
Director: Christophe Gans
Source: Universal DVD

This enthusiastic genre mash-up is absurd, over-the-top, and a real good time, thanks largely to its striking and uninhibited direction by Christophe Gans, who with reckless glee mixes historical adventure with gothic horror, martial arts action, barbarian fantasy, slasher-flick jump scares, and a murder mystery. It’s set in 1764 in the region of Gévaudan in south-central France, where a wolf-like creature has been preying on people in the forests and countryside. This strange and horrific beast has evaded hunters and soldiers alike, so the king sends his leading naturalist, the Chevalier de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), to help track it down and describe it scientifically once it’s slain.

Nothing goes to plan. Arriving in Gévaudan with his Iroquois warrior friend Mani (Mark Dacascos), Fronsac finds terrified peasants, incompetent officers, decadent ancien régime aristocrats, a (completely ahistorical) clan of barbaric hunters, and a calculating Catholic priest, but nothing and no one who can help him get a line on the rampaging wolf-creature, despite the ostensible cooperation of the Morangias family, the leading local nobles.

The Count de Morangias (Jean Yanne) is dismissive, his intense hunting-obsessed son Jean-François (Vincent Cassel) is strangely ineffective, his ingénue daughter Marianne (Émilie Dequenne) is coolly flirtatious, and his neighbor the Marquis d’Apcher (Jérémie Renier) decides that when they’re not hunting the night creature, Fronsac and Mani should reside in a palatial and opulent brothel teeming with semi-nude prostitutes, a place that has no business existing anywhere smaller than Paris itself.

If the above sounds complex and talky, it is, but fortunately none of it is really serious, and trust me, there’s plenty of action in between the debauchery and verbal fencing with the aristos. There’s trouble with the barbaric hunter clan, fights are frequent, and besides using swords, big knives, and flintlocks, everybody knows kung fu, apparently just because that’s cool. (Which it is — somehow it works in context.) Fronsac falls in love with the dewy Marianne, but courting her doesn’t stop him from banging the sublimely ridiculous Sylvia (Monica Bellucci), a spooky prostitute in the brothel who reads tarot cards, gives Fronsac excellent drugs, and just might be a ruthless assassin working for mysterious patrons when she isn’t carving her name in Fronsac’s skin and then licking his blood from the blade. Hot? You bet.

Gradually, after weeks of pursuit as the season turns to frozen winter, the truth about the wolf-beast starts to come out, and Fronsac begins to understand what he’s up against. And since the monster was crafted by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, it’s fearsome and convincing. As a protagonist, Fronsac is that bane of historical fiction, the character supposedly of their time who actually has the attitudes and personality of a contemporary modern, so he isn’t taken in by 18th-century provincial superstition, not he.

Plus, the killer conveniently uses special ammunition in his anachronistic carbine-pistol, so anyone with a brain who finds the murder bullet will know whodunit — but really, there’s only been one suspect all the time. The whole thing goes on a bit too long, but the final fight, arranged by Jackie Yeung and featuring crazy weapons like bladed fighting fans and extensible chain-swords, is totally worth the wait. Stylish and fun.

Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.

Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:

Zatoichi at Large
Invitation to a Keelhauling
Sequel Debacle
Deuces Wild
Beware of Greeks
Peak ‘90s Wuxia
Ashes of Time
Consider the Rapier
They Seek Him Here…
The Darkness Before the Dawn
Young Horatio Hornblower
Two-Thirds of a Miracle

LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is busily promoting the Cinema of Swords compilation from Applause Books, a volume that was born right here at Black Gate! That book, out now, covers swordplay movies up through the ‘80s, but Ellsworth is continuing with new material for a Volume Two and is now working his way up through the 2000s. These later reviews are being published weekly on his new Cinema of Swords Substack blog, at cinemaofswords.substack.com.

Meanwhile, Ellsworth soldiers on at his mega-project of editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle; the seventh volume, Court of Daggers, is available now as an ebook or trade paperback from Amazon, while the eighth, Shadow of the Bastille, is being published in weekly instalments at musketeerscycle.substack.com. His website is swashbucklingadventure.net. Check them out!

(Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he works for Larian Studios and was Principal Narrative Designer for the Dungeons & Dragons videogame Baldur’s Gate 3.)

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Joe H.

I like Scorpion King well enough for what it is. I _love_ Brotherhood of the Wolf.

Eugene R.

“Stylish and fun”, there is the epitaph that I am hoping to earn!

Adrian Simmons

I watched “Brotherhood of the Wolf” on DVD shortly after it first came out. It was trippiin’! I need to watch it again.

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