Brotherhood of the Wolf (fight 5 of 5)

Our last visit with the cheese-eating karate monkeys.

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5) Fronsac vs Jean-Francois and co

The Fighters:

  • Fronsac, the naturalist knight and heroic beater of asses. His awesome escapades from our last entry landed him in jail, but he was unwittingly helped out of it when his favorite prostitute (and every proper gentleman has a favorite) poisoned him into a state approximating death, then revived him after he’d been removed and buried. (Out of all the crazy things about this movie, the idea that even a high-class prostitute would look as good as Monica Belluci might be the most unrealistic.) Now he’s back to make a surprise entry and finish the job of avenging Mani’s death, even wearing his pal’s old face paint. Played by Samuel Le Bihan.
    • Armed with: Dual short swords, of the “broad” variety.
  • Jean-Francois de Morangias, a prolific hunter and the film’s “surprise” villain. Not the leader of the Brotherhood (that’s Henri Sardis, the local priest), but he’s the one who captured & trained the Beast, and seems to be the cult’s point man for violent activities. Tall & covered with lean muscle, he’s pretty imposing, despite a rather silly-looking outfit. Oh, he also had a stalker-crush on his sister, who he raped a little while before this. Ew. Played by Vincent Cassel, who you probably remember from the second two “Ocean’s” movies.
    • Armed with: An unusual whip-sword made of bones. Normally he wields it as a sword or club but with the right manipulation of the handle it transforms into a segmented whip/chain. I’ve heard that something like this is a real thing, but they’re impractical novelty items at best; it’s near impossible to get them back into their default “sword” mode in the midst of a duel.
  • The gypsies, for the last time. They’re more of a prelude to the real duel, but extensive enough to be included. Fronsac kills about four but all the surviving members are there, including La Bavarde.

Hooker-spy Sylvia also plays a role, as do local magistrate Captain Duhamel and his men.

The Setup: Thinking that their last enemy is dead, the titular Brotherhood meets in a secluded space in the forest.

"This totally normal, meeting in the woods dressed like this."

“This is totally normal, meeting in the woods dressed like this.”

They discuss their plans to turn the public ever more against the King’s heresy, and Sardis closes with a prayer. But he’s cut off by the arrival of the thought-dead Gregoire de Fronsac, who had been hiding in a stone structure above. He interrupts the priest with a prayer of his own.

"There's a passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17..."

“There’s a passage I got memorized: Ezekiel 25:17…”

He proceeds to tell the Brotherhood that le jig, she ees ahp, and calls out the names of many of the (masked) members. Most are shocked, but Jean-Francois takes it in stride, proudly unmasking with a smug “amen.”

One of the gypsies tries to shoot Fronsac, but he flips out of the way and lands on the altar before the crowd. He showily draws his weapons.

"Venez et l'obtenir."

“Venez et l’obtenir.”

The Fight: The gypsies come at Fronsac first, especially the guy who is apparently their leader (he’s wearing Mani’s Iroquois bracelet). He seems to harbor special animosity against Fronsac that’s not clear, but a deleted scene shows him bellowing with rage upon finding the final chump the hero had killed in the catacombs, implying that the two were close in some way.

The hero deals with him for a while before kicking him away, then several more rush in. Fronsac beats and kills a few of the other gypsies, including the two females that Mani had “played” with back in Fight #2, before facing off with the leader again. After some intense fighting, Fronsac is able to break the gypsy’s arm and run him through. He then seizes the thug’s head and scalps him, tossing the trophy at the assembled cultists.

They’re shocked but they still outnumber him… until Duhamel’s men arrive and open fire. As the troops swarm in, the cultists & gypsies either scatter or get shot where they stand. Elsewhere in the darkened forest, La Bavarde runs into Sylvia, apparently thinking her easy prey, but nope: as the little tramp lunges with a knife, Sylvia calmly slashes her throat with a bladed fan, putting the gypsy girl down for the count. FINALLY.

That leaves the only two who didn’t flee the meeting site: Fronsac and Jean-Francois.

Even preparing for death he looks pretty.

Even preparing for death he looks pretty.

The slow-motion and dramatic music definitely play up the “final boss” feel as they square off, as does some brief hostile dialogue. But they waste little time before going at it, blade against bone.

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Fronsac is fast & furious, but the lithe and powerful Morangias is more than a match for him. Indeed, Cassel, himself apparently something of a martial artist in real life, is an excellent physical villain. He moves with an awkward grace that doesn’t quite match the complexity of the heroes’ kung fu-like abilities, but is still plenty deadly.

The two don’t just slash and kick in a small patch of ground but really explore the space of the impromptu arena, chasing each  other about and jumping off walls. Early in the fight, Jean-Francois reveals his weapon’s nifty secondary ability, catching his foe enough by surprise with the whip’s versatility that he slashes the hero painfully across the cheek as he retracts the sword lengths back together.

"Mon Dieu!"

“Mon Dieu!”

In fact, it’s Jean-Francois who scores almost all the injuries throughout the fight, using his strength and unusual weapon (he goes back & forth between the two functions several times) to keep Fronsac mostly on the defensive. The hero rallies a few times and pushes back, but the battle remains Jean-Francois’ game. Halfway through the two have a brief exchange about Fronsac guessing the villain’s identity early on, uttering “you sign your crimes with a silver bullet!” It’s the type of operatic line that always sounds better in a foreign language than it does in your own.

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Finally Morangias is able to briefly get the upper hand when he hooks the whip around one of Fronsac’s swords. The knight, unwilling to let go, gets spun in the air and slammed to the ground several times. But during one such trip he gets close enough to his enemy that he’s able to reach in with the other blade and cut Jean-Francois’ neck.

Knowing the end is near, the villain cries out to his (not present, since he raped her and left her for dead. Again, ew) sister, and retracts the whip once more, which somehow yanks the formerly caught blade straight into his stomach.

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Convinced that he’ll see his “beloved” (ew) in death, Jean-Francois falls to the ground after Fronsac removes the sword from his gut, and with his dying effort curls his right arm underneath his back, simulating (for no apparent reason) the way he kept the arm bound & hidden in public for several years. Finally done, an exhausted Fronsac lets out a somewhat comically relieved sigh as he looks to the heavens.

Oh, and Sardis evades the authorities, but gets devoured by the local wolf pack, who were quite upset over being blamed for his shenanigans. Nice.

There’s a certain… perfunctoriness to this fight, even if it is a spirited perfunctoriness. It feels not so much inevitable as it does mandatory, the hero & villain having a showdown straight out of a video game. It’s hard to quantify what’s missing about it, since it is ambitious and technically quite excellent. Though not technically perfect: the CGI used on the whip sword and Fronsac’s final flying blade are laughably bad, standing out like a sore thumb.

Still, on the surface at least it does deliver just about everything you need in a climactic fight scene. Good music, strong (if perhaps overdone at times) choreography, brutal hits sold by great sound design (the unusual chock chock chock sound of blade on bone is a nice touch), an emotional payoff, it’s not too short but not too long, and the changing nature of the whip sword keeps things from getting too stale. It’s not quite the most fitting end to the movie, but it is an undeniably fun one.

Grade: B+

Question: In case you couldn’t tell Ive upped my game with the pictures lately; I figured out the should-have-been-more-obvious fact that if I watch the movie on my computer’s DVD player, it’s not only easier to take notes (typing instead of writing), but very easy to get screengrabs, rather than having to hunt them down via Google image search. The only thing I’m worried about is that this leaves me with TOO many images to choose from, and I keep wanting to put all or almost all of them into the article. Has anyone found this to be unduly distracting, or does it enhance the experience? Comment below if you have an opinion.

Coming Attractions: Let’s Thai one on.

Jaa rules.

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Brotherhood of the Wolf (fight 4 of 5)

Sometimes the toughest guys are the ones you least expect.

For instance.

4) Fronsac vs Gypsies

The Fighters:

  • Gregoire de Fronsac, brilliant scientist and, apparently, a high-level asskicker. As with Mani, Fronsac’s martial arts abilities are never explained or addressed in any way, but unlike with Mani, Fronsac’s skills don’t pop until about the final third of the story. This actually works to the film’s credit: the audience had been misled into assuming that the Fronsac/Mani team was your classic Brain & Brawns pairing, but as it turns out, the brain has brawn to spare. That the movie doesn’t revel in or overly explain this delightful little surprise only helps even more. Played by Samuel Le Bihan.
    • Armed with: A very simple but mean-looking long knife, and a bow & arrow.
  • The gypsies, again. I’m guessing that real-life gypsies were so offended by their portrayal in this movie they put a curse on Christophe Gans so he’d never make a good movie again.
    • Armed with: Their hook claws and a few other stabbing implements.

The Setup: Fronsac spent an unknown amount of time tearfully cleaning Mani’s body and examining his wounds, at one point uncovering a silver bullet. Once the initial grieving period is over, he plots out (using the locations of previous Beast attacks, the place where he had his encounter with it, and the place he found Mani’s body) where he guesses the villains to be: a hunting lodge deep in the woods. He exchanges his more traditional European outfit for some Goin’ To War clothes, applies some camouflage face paint, and sets out to get his kill on. Note that this is all on the same night that the guy had a close encounter with an armored super-lion and later found his best friend dead.

Gotta admit Fronsac strikes a pretty imposing profile, creeping through the woods like a bow-wielding Solid Snake.

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“Be vewy, vewy quiet….”

The Fight: Fronsac is mad as hell, but still pretty tactically sound. First scoping out the lodge and finding that the gypsies are all inside having a party (presumably celebrating how awesome they are for killing a guy they outnumbered twelve to one and STILL had to shoot in the back) and noting that one has stolen Mani’s special bracelet, Gregoire decides to create a distraction.

He approaches the nearby stable full of horses and fires a few flaming arrows into the structure, causing several gypsies to rush out and try to save the place. Most are too frantic to notice him, but when one does, Fronsac calmly dispatches him in a very dignified manner.

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He gives a similar treatment to the torso of a second unfortunate gypsy, then scurries away from the chaos and sneaks his way into the main building. Now most of the lodge’s occupants are out dealing with the crisis, and even if any of them return it’s not going to be all at once. Fronsac has effectively muted their advantage in numbers.

The hero doesn’t get far in the house before he runs into some confused baddies, and he is not shy about confrontation. He storms through the lodge, encountering his enemies either individually or in pairs, and just delivers them straight to the Reaper– no fuss, no muss. His work is efficient; there is no arrogance or flashiness to his physical skills here, just brutal and unflinching destruction… though he does occasionally take just long enough to prolong each victim’s pain.

And after each kill he calmly & purposefully strides on, grimly searching out the next target. Fronsac is a single-minded engine of merciless anger. He’s on a Rip Roarin’ Rampage of Revenge.

Fronsac’s knife (given its crude design it’s probably one of Mani’s) gets a lot of play here as he slices, stabs & chops his enemies down. Late in the fight he throws the blade across the room to pin one escaping villain (the only one who was sensible enough to try to run after seeing an enraged knight at the end of a trail of corpses) to the wall, through his neck. Another he flips over bodily, so hard the chump goes crashing right through the floorboards.

So much for the deposit.

So much for the deposit.

And in my favorite kill, Fronsac seizes one attacker (defender?) and slams him against alternating sides of the narrow hallway– one, two, three, FOUR times– before chopping away at his collarbone with the knife and then slamming his head right through the opposite wall. Then he delivers a spinning jump kick that pushes the guy even farther into the wall.

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Le crunch.

While he kills & kills, Fronsac descends ever deeper into the lodge, discovering multiple hidden copies of the cult’s treasonous books. As he pulls the knife out of the aforementioned skewered guy, he looks in the mirror to find that his would-be sneak attacker is none other than (of course) La Bavarde, whom he only delivers a strong backhand to, inexplicably deciding to just leave her stunned on the ground for a few minutes rather than coughing in a pool of her own bitch blood. If only he’d known how much of a role this French Snooki had played in Mani’s demise.

Soon enough the bad guys stop coming. Sniffing out some secret passages, Fronsac finds first the master villain’s personal chambers, and then the catacombs where the Beast resides. He even takes a moment at the torture implement (a St. Andrew’s cross) where Mani spent his final minutes. Visibly shaken, Fronsac then gets rushed by a lone gypsy, but he quickly turns the tables and runs the baddie through with a spear he found, pinning him up against that very same cross and leaving him there.

This is cathartic for him.

This is cathartic for him.

Gregoire then hears the gypsies coming back in force, and retreats, leaving quite a mess in his wake– eleven dead or presumed as such, plus the girl. To be continued.

This is ridiculously awesome. We feel Fronsac’s righteous rage and are whooping & hollering as he delivers ugly payback. The aforementioned added surprise of Fronsac’s is a pleasant one, and brings an added “wow” factor to the proceedings. Choreographer Phillip Kwok deserves extra credit for staging violence that’s not very flashy but still memorably brutal. Gans wisely pulls back the music for the main action portion and lets the beatdowns speak for themselves.

There’s a crazy, determined energy to this whole sequence and it works like gangbusters. It’s pretty much every guy’s fantasy, and unabashedly so: “If I were pissed off enough, I could kick ass through a whole platoon of guys, no problem!”

The plot still has a few wild left turns to take but this scene has already begun to propel the movie towards its big climax. As a bonus, here’s another angle on the arrow/head guy:

He looks a lot like Will Ferrell there.

He looks a lot like Will Ferrell there.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: BOSS FIGHT!

"Je te VEUX!"

“Je te VEUX!”

Brotherhood of the Wolf (fight 3 of 5)

Here’s where le merde gets real, as they say.

“Venez à moi, mon frere!”

3) Team Fronsac vs the Beast and the Brotherhood

The Fighters:

  • Gregoire de Fronsac, stepping into the action for the first time so far. A rationalist, scientist and knight of King Louis’ court, Fronsac had been dispatched to track down the Beast but ended up playing the patsy in a political game. Now he’s out to take care of business. Played by Samuel Le Bihan.
    • Armed with: An array of small firearms, which he proves adept with during a pre-fight preparatory sequence.
  • Mani, Fronsac’s quiet Iroquois friend. This time stripped down to nothing but a loincloth, boots and some freaky ceremonial war paint. Played by Mark Dacascos.
    • Armed with: A sweet tomahawk.
  • Thomas d’Apcher, son of the local marquis. Actually a pretty decent & brave chap, despite looking like a spoiled fop. Also the story’s narrator, so he’ll probably survive this. Played by Jérémie Renier, not to be confused with the guy who plays Hawkeye.
    • Armed with: A crossbow, which is kinda funny for the above reason.
  • The Beast, a large jungle predator covered in tough and spiky armor. It’s well-trained and bred for viciousness, though its masters also apparently lets it roam free at times. There’s some ambiguity over exactly what the Beast is– we never see it outside of the armor, and the dialogue doesn’t make it explicit. All we’re told at the end is that its trainer brought back “a new kind of animal” (or “a strange beast” depending on which translation you’ve heard/how good my memory is). In interviews, Christophe Gans has claimed the beast is definitely a lion. It doesn’t really move like a lion (says me, the big lion expert), but then the CGI is so bad it doesn’t really move like anything. Others think it’s a rare hybrid between a lion and another large cat (like maybe it’s a liger, GOSH!). Personally I like the interpretation that it really is a new, heretofore undiscovered breed from the depths of the jungle, but YMMV. Played by various computer and animatronic special effects.
    • Armed with: Teeth, claws, sharp armor and a couple hundred pounds of predatory muscle.
  • Those gypsies again, including La Bavarde. It’s their own home turf and they’re more threatened than ever, so they’re much more nasty than last time. Their mysterious leader also plays a small but pivotal role.
    • Armed with: Their hook claws and torches.

The real wolves of Gevaudan also make an appearance.

The Setup: After being coerced into a cover-up faking the death of the Beast to avoid embarrassing the government, Fronsac returned to Gevaudan in order to get all kissy with Marianne, a local young noble he’d met there. But their rendezvous was interrupted by a strangely targeted attack from the Beast, convincing him it was time to put the monster, and the men behind it, down for good. One late afternoon he, Mani, and young Marquis-to-be Thomas, form a small but determined hunting party and set a number of traps for the Beast. Mani even feeds d’Apcher a peyote-like substance to get his head in the game.

You'd take an unknown hallucinatory substance from this man, wouldn't you?

You’d accept an unknown hallucinogenic substance from this man, wouldn’t you?

A local wolf pack, who have some sort of connection with Mani, offer their assistance by swarming the Beast and driving it to the hunters. They have skin in this game too, since many are blaming wolves for the creature’s attacks.

Note: I’m combining the “battle” of the Beast with Mani’s subsequent human brawl, as they follow directly after one another and the former is too short for its own entry yet too interesting to skip.

The Fight: The first half of the hunt is ambitious, if not overly spectacular. The Beast gets corralled by wolves into Team Fronsac’s prepared area, and they do everything they can to nudge, lure or threaten it into the series of traps they’ve set up. Two of the traps, basically cages or walls made of flimsy bamboo, and don’t hold the Beast for long, if at all. But one device, an enormous swinging log covered with spikes, nails the monster but good and sends it flying.

THUNK

THUNK

The heroes also give their prey some minor wounds in the form of a tomahawk to the snout and a pistol shot in the haunch. But it gives back pretty good by chomping down on Thomas’ arm and dragging him for a while. When the wounded creature retreats, Mani pursues while Fronsac stays behind to tend to the wounded aristocrat.

Mani tracks the creature to the catacombs that serve as its masters’ base of operations. Looking around, he sees evidence of the cult’s existence and even has a nice moment with some of the kenneled dogs the Beast uses for “practice.” But he soon realizes he’s in the belly of a more figurative beast, and he was probably wearing his Bad Idea Loincloth when he decided to come alone.

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Should have brought Scott Wolf as backup

Now it’s the fight of Mani’s life, and if the gypsy punks aren’t holding back, neither is he. War Paint Mani is absolutely brutal in his dismantlement of the thugs ganging up on him, lashing out with deadly precision, often with his tomahawk. He punches, kicks, slices, and guts them one at a time. Most memorably, he chops off one enemy’s clawed hand and throws it in the torso of another.

But it’s not enough. Mani’s in a tight space and he’s surrounded. For the first time, he gets actually hurt, both by cheap shots: one a kick to the face and another by a claw raking down his back. He doesn’t slow down, and for a while it looks like he might survive… until he grabs one attacker who turns out to be La Bavarde, and while he hesitates to bring the axe down, he gets shot in the back by the group’s masked leader. Unable to move, he’s carried away by the surviving villains, laughing at their foe’s fate. We cut to an unknown amount of time later (the light levels haven’t changed much, but it’s implied the gypsies had “fun” with Mani before finishing him off), as a pair of baddies unceremoniously toss Mani’s broken body down a small hill. Fronsac finds him later, and doesn’t take it well.

“He was only two days from retirement!”

This extended battle marks a turning point for the movie, after which things are going to be not just more focused but even more intense in an already bonkers film. The plot thickens, even as some of the mysteries are being revealed (hey, you think that mysterious villain with the gross-looking right arm could possibly be the snooty, paranoid & hostile Jean-Francois, who claims to have lost his right arm while hunting big game in Africa? You get a cookie), and the action ratchets up from here on. Mani’s death becomes a catalyst for real changes, especially with Fronsac (see below).

Meanwhile, this whole sequence is really well-done. While it’s short and there’s not a lot to it, the showdown with the Beast here has some inventive staging and is a nice change-up from the rest of the film’s action. It’s almost a light version of the climax of Predator, so that’s hardly a bad thing. The second half, with Mani’s last stand, is more traditional but really intense, with the heavy violence and serious music really selling his desperation. It’s rough seeing such a likeable character go out this way, but it of course helps set up the retaliation to come.

All in all, an excellent mid-film mini-climax.

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Gregoire lets his hair down.

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“They see me lurkin, they hatin….”

Brotherhood of the Wolf (fight 2 of 5)

A little fun never hurt anyone.

Mani does, though.

But a little Mani always does.

2) Mani vs Gypsies

The Fighters:

  • Mani, everyone’s favorite kung fu Iroquois. He’s now let his hair down in every sense of the word. Played by Mark Dacascos.
    • Armed with: Nothing.
  • Several gypsies, including two women. They’re ostensibly here as part of the hunting party that’s being assembled to catch the Beast, but they’re actually working for the film’s villainous cult. The males are especially weird, with all sorts of feathers & braids in their hair, and they stick out their tongues a lot like a dime store Kurgan. It’s pretty silly. Played by a bunch of stunt people and bit actors.
    • Armed with: Most of the guys have these weird hook/claw attachments on their hands, but they don’t break them out until near the end.

The Setup: As our heroes prep for the big hunting party, Mani has another encounter with the strange lady he saved earlier. She starts getting harassed by a couple of the gypsy dudes, whom she seems to know, but her attitude about it changes from aggravated to aroused (?) when she catches Mani watching. The action cuts away from the meeting, but when we come back, Mani is brawling with the two knuckleheads who’d been pawing at her, while she cheers it on with the crowd.

This girl is one of Brotherhood of the Wolf’s more maddening aspects. She is never named in the film (the credits apparently list her as La Bavarde, which Babelfish says is French for “the talker”) and she barely speaks, yet she instigates a number of important events and the camera seems to treat her like an important character. It’s never really established what her “deal” is; her father seems to be a pretty nice guy who’s just caught up working with the villains, but she’s more or less full-out bad. Mani is inexplicably (and, eventually, fatally) intrigued by her, again for reasons that are never clear. She also seems to despise Mani despite him saving her & her dad, and she has this weird love/hate relationship with the male gypsies. Oh, and she has some form of epilepsy that only manifests once in the movie. You’d think that her character had a bigger role in some scenes that were cut, but if those scenes exist they’ve never made their way to a home release I’ve ever seen or heard of. As it is, La Bavarde just hangs around irritatingly on the story’s periphery, acting nasty and starting trouble like the 18th-century version of a Jersey Shore cast member.

The Fight: Mani first faces the pair of gypsies who’d been messing with La Snooki, and though he clearly outclasses them he actually takes his time to beat them up, using more elaborate & showy movements, and even returning their physical taunts.

Real mature.

Real mature.

He’s treating this like it’s a game, which is basically what it is. The crowd that gathers is rowdy but not really bloodthirsty, and even Mani’s friend Fronsac doesn’t try to stop it, though that’s mainly because he knows Mani is in no danger. The gypsies may increasingly feel their pride is at stake, but for everyone else this is totally schoolyard.

Mani finally takes the two chumps out of commission, and is almost immediately greeted by two new challengers– a couple of not-so-lovely ladies wearing men’s clothing. They stride toward him in faux-seductive slow motion, clearly relishing the challenge. Mani seems perplexed at this development, and trades a priceless glance with a visibly amused Fronsac.

Betcha didn't know Kathy Griffin was in this movie

Betcha didn’t know Kathy Griffin was in this movie

The not-so-ladylike ladies come off a bit better than their male counterparts and are nearly as agile as Mani, but still can’t measure up. After some cool, almost dance-like fighting, he knocks them silly and is greeted with four more male gypsies, this time with their claws out.

The music immediately switches up from playful to a bit more serious, but Mani is unfazed, dodging & smacking down just as before. He takes out the final two with a nifty flip move that puts them down hard. Mani stands around cockily enjoying himself, but doesn’t seem to see a fifth gypsy (presumably one of the original fight starters, but it’s hard to tell these guys apart) try to rush up and claw him in the back. But that gets the kibosh put in it by the mysterious Jean-Francois, who shoots the gypsy right through his claw hand. It’s all fun & games until somebody gets shot while attempting a dishonorable murder, so the fight ends after that and the crowd dissipates.

This is, once again, quite entertaining. It escalates the level & complexity of combat in the film and indulges in some fun silliness (as opposed to the previous fight in the rain, which was also silly but in a very melodramatic, po-faced sort of way). Although its primary cinematic purpose is to inject a bit more action into a scene that otherwise didn’t require any– there hadn’t been a fight in a little while and won’t be another for quite a bit more– this sequence also serves a clever secondary role of memorably introducing the gypsies, who serve as the villains’ henchmen. Two birds, one stone.

So a nice bit of action filler and some more groundwork is laid for what’s in store. Not too shabby.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: That freaking Bavarde ruins EVERYTHING.

"I am, how you say, le bitch."

“I am, how you say, le bitch.”

Brotherhood of the Wolf (fight 1 of 5)

Only the strong(est) will win.

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Not gonna be that guy.

Brotherhood of the Wolf is an odd bird, and quite definitely by design. It’s a French-language period drama action horror story about how a naturalist knight, his mystical karate Indian pal, and an Italian prostitute/Vatican assassin unravel a conspiracy involving a zealous cult’s use of an armored monster to spread anti-Enlightenment propaganda. It is, of course, based on a true story. It’s completely ridiculous and totally awesome. I wish there were more like it.

1) Mani vs Cross-Dressing Soldiers

The Fighters:

  • Mani, an Iroquois warrior/shaman who’s left America to become the companion of the film’s main protagonist. Mani is friendly but taciturn, very spiritual, and an all-around good guy. His tragic backstory involves the white devil killing his tribe, before he linked up with the honorable Gregoire de Fronsac. He’s also the master of what looks a lot like Chinese wushu, which would have been tough for him to pick up in 18th-century America. It’s never discussed, so the implication may be that kung fu is indeed yet another one of the magic foreign powers that American Indians know (the movie really does have that level of willful silliness) or, as later revelations in the story might allow for, that he actually learned it from Fronsac (who presumably picked it up on his many travels). Played by Mark Dacascos, who never got to be as big a star as he should have. It’s funny that Dacascos should play a Native American, since that’s one of the few ethnicities that’s not somewhere in his rich genetic gumbo. Dude’s like the Tiger Woods of violence.
  • French soldiers, about six of them. They’re all dressed up and nowhere to go like peasant ladies because, as we will later find out, the beast tends to attack females and the local magistrate is trying to draw it into a trap. Anyway, they’re tough & mean, but nobody short of Jet Li is a match for this karate Indian. Played by stunt men, presumably.

Everybody has wooden quarterstaffs. Well, Mani doesn’t at first, but he fixes that right quick.

The Setup: The king has sent his royal taxidermist to the province of Gevaudan to investigate a series of killings attributed to a mysterious “beast” stalking the countryside– the first thing we see, actually, in full-on horror movie style, is a poor woman get devoured by the elusive creature.

It’s a dark and stormy afternoon, with precipitation that Forrest Gump would describe as “big ol’ fat rain,” as our heroes arrive in town. They immediately come across the nasty sight of a bunch of thugs beating up not just a nice old man but also a young pretty girl, which is a twofer in the realm of “excuses to show how tough the hero is” cliches. The conflict is, we will learn afterward, about the soldiers’ refusal to pay the old man for medicinal services rendered to their horses (the girl, his daughter, has probably also instigated it to some extent, considering how much of a troublemaker we later learn she is).

Though the soldiers demand to know who these two strangers are, neither answers. Mani dismounts and casually strides into the group like a boss.

The Fight: It’s pretty clear that Mani means business, so the soldiers waste no time surrounding him. One charges in tentatively and gets rewarded with a kick to the gut, and Mani stealing his weapon.

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“Now I have a quarterstaff. Ho, ho, ho.”

And from there on, it’s Mani’s world, and these skirted chumps just live in it. Nobody even comes close to grazing the Iroquois as he dispatches them all with ease. Since what they’re doing is not too complex, for the most part Dacascos doesn’t even have to show off some of his fancier kung fu– he just moves fast & hits hard. They also mostly try to rush in one at a time, but everything happens so fast, and Mani’s so unpredictably graceful, that you can’t blame them for not thinking to all rush in simultaneously.

As we’ve discussed again & again here, it’s the opening fight scene’s job to introduce what kind of movie we’re going to be watching, and BOTW definitely lives up to its end of the bargain there. In addition to the choreography by Phillip Kwok, director Christophe Gans announces his aesthetic intentions early on. The staging is melodramatic & hyper-stylized: the action speeds up & down to emphasizes hits & motion, blows are accompanied by loud crunches on the soundtrack, and even the raindrops splash out in glorious slow-mo. This film is one of the many to clearly live in the shadow of post-Matrix kung fu films, but still recognizably have its own style.

Anyway, Mani makes quick work of these chumps with several elegant hits. The last is the most notable, when he plants his staff and launches himself into the air for sweet double-kick.

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“Zeut alors!”

After that, even the ones who aren’t too beat up to fight decide it’s time to give up on this one. The dispute is “settled” and the heroes have made some new enemies, although it’s the people they saved who they should be worried about.

(Notably, there’s a deleted sequence here where after Mani puts the hurt on a few of these guys, Fronsac also dismounts and kicks some more ass. It’s pretty cool, but Gans made the right choice in keeping his main hero’s martial arts abilities as a surprise for later.)

This is a lot of fun, and it sets the baseline for what we’ll be seeing throughout: Mani is not to be trifled with, and Gans came here to play.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Someone trifles with Mani.

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Gevaudan is French for “slow learner.”