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Brotherhood of the Wolf - Director's Cut (HD DVD)
Somewhere in the middle of the 18th Century, the French countryside is being terrorized by the "Beast of Gévaudan", a creature officially classified as a really big wolf. Really big. We're talking huge. And mean. This thing doesn't just hunt its prey, it stalks women and children, picks them up, and smashes them to a bloody pulp. No one has gotten a close look at the monster and lived, but the locals are convinced that it's supernatural in origin. Sent to investigate is the Royal Naturalist Sir Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a handsome studmuffin with a skeptical, scientific mind. Fronsac brings along his best friend/bodyguard Mani, an American Indian who can commune with the animal spirits and also knows kung-fu, which of course comes in handy when hunting wolves (Mani is played by the Hawaiian actor Mark Dacascos, who doesn't look even remotely like an Apache Indian, but he's dark-skinned and buff, and I guess that's close enough). Left unimpressed by the village's attempts to purge the nearby forest of all wolves, Fronsac and Mani have their work cut out discovering the true nature and origin of the beast, a feat that will require cunning detective work, ruthless political scheming, and some serious ass-kicking. A lot of ass-kicking.
A giddy concoction of period costume drama, monster movie, conspiracy thriller,
and rocking kung-fu action picture, Brotherhood of the Wolf (Les Pacte des Loups) is director Christophe Gans' attempt to outdo Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow in the genre of "reimagined" dark fairy tales. Taking an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach, the movie has handsome period production design and costumes, sumptuous photography, gruesome gore, huge action set-pieces, and terrific fight choreography by Hong Kong action maestro Philip Kwok (The Bride with White Hair, Hard Boiled). More importantly, it offers ravishing eye candy in the form of Monica Bellucci and Emilie Duquenne as the beautiful French whore and the virginal young society debutante who vie for Fronsac's affections. And Bellucci even gets naked. Yes, my friends, this film is a masterpiece.
Oh sure, the details of the story are ridiculous, no doubt about it. Even basic questions such as how or why Fronsac's Injun sidekick would know what are clearly Asian-style martial arts are never addressed, and we're not meant to ask them. The answer to the plot's big mystery is a convoluted conspiracy that would make even Oliver Stone blink. Gans knows this and absolutely embraces the film's sillier tendencies, crafting a picture that's violent, sexy, funny, and utterly gorgeous to look at. It's a shame the director's follow-up Hollywood debut, the idiotic video game adaptation Silent Hill, so badly wasted his talents. This guy has serious filmmaking chops. Even if he never makes another movie worth a damn, Brotherhood of the Wolf offers more pure, concentrated entertainment than most directors manage in an entire career. This is rip-roaring, no-holds-barred fun of the highest order.
The HD DVD:
Brotherhood of the Wolf has been released on the HD DVD format by Studio Canal in Europe. The copy under review is a French release, but a comparable edition (the same disc in different packaging) is also available in the UK from Optimum Home Entertainment. Both editions list incorrect running times on their case art, leading to confusion over which version of the movie each contains. In fact, both include the full 152-minute Director's Cut that extends some elements of the love triangle in the plot and eases some transitions in the narrative.
European HD DVDs are not region-coded and will function in an American HD DVD player. The disc opens with a selection of French or English menu languages. Once you've chosen, your HD DVD player should store this information in its persistent memory, so the next time you load the disc it will remember your preferred menu without prompting. The language can still be changed if you desire, simply by selecting the arrow at the bottom of the menu page. Before getting to the main menu, however, the disc automatically plays a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc is a Combo release that specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Brotherhood of the Wolf HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
When the film was released on DVD in North America, viewers had the choice of two editions, neither ideal. Universal released the theatrical cut in the U.S. with a moderately decent transfer marred by some filtering and edge enhancement. North of the border, TVA Films in Canada put out a more elaborate 3-disc edition of the Director's Cut that was unfortunately plagued by digital compression problems and even worse edge enhancement. That latter disc was particularly hard to watch on a large screen, so I was excited by the chance to own a superior transfer for the Director's Cut, one in High Definition no less. Sadly, although an improvement over the awful DVD, the HD DVD is no great shakes either.
Like the DVD, the image once again has an over-processed appearance,
hampered by artificial sharpening which causes blatant ringing in many scenes and kills texture. Detail is only fair at best, with a lot of the movie looking overly filtered and dupey. The source elements exhibit recurring specks throughout. The color timing also seems off, with many hues looking artificial (especially greens) and muddy. The movie has a fair amount of natural film grain which has been very poorly digitized and looks quite noisy. Compression quality is pretty bad in some scenes, leading to obvious mosquito noise and some minor blockiness. The scenes in Paris just outright look like crap.
The HD DVD does look better than the DVD, I'll give it that. It's also a treat to see Monica Bellucci and Emilie Duquenne in High Definition, even if not the best quality. Unfortunately, by HD DVD standards, Brotherhood of the Wolf is resoundingly mediocre.
The Brotherhood of the Wolf HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
The movie's original French-language soundtrack is provided in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format. At the time of this writing no HD DVD hardware is capable of decoding the full Master Audio lossless codec. Instead, players extract the lossy DTS core, which is equivalent to DVD quality.
It still sounds good, but may offer further improvements when advanced hardware is released in the future.
If the picture quality disappoints, the audio certainly doesn't. The film has a famously powerhouse soundtrack that's extremely bassy, immersively directional, and just plain loud. When Mani starts beating the crap out of his opponents, you can feel every punch and kick in your gut. There is nearly constant full-range activity coming from every channel, and it's all delivered with crisp and clear fidelity.
Unlike some of Studio Canal's other HD DVD releases such as The Elephant Man or Basic Instinct, Brotherhood of the Wolf does not suffer any high pitch problems. Compared directly to the NTSC DVD edition, after volume-matching (the DVD is boosted much louder by default) voices and music sounded identical in tone. I remember being blown away by the DTS track on the Canadian DVD, but I also think that we've come a long way in audio quality since then, and I can't quite give Brotherhood a perfect score. It's damn good, though. This soundtrack is a lot of fun.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English.
Alternate language tracks - N/A.
By using the C and D buttons on your HD DVD player remote, Studio Canal offers the ability to reduce the size and position of the subtitles, placing them either entirely within the movie image or entirely in the lower letterbox bar (or half in/half out) per your preference. This is a tremendous benefit to viewers with 2.35:1 Constant Image Height projection systems.
Be warned that although the HD DVD release of the film in the UK advertises an English dub soundtrack, the disc does not actually include one.
The disc contains no bonus features relating to the movie. The only supplements are a section of video and audio test patterns and a brief video tutorial for the subtitle positioning features. That's a pity, as the French and Canadian DVD releases of the film were packed with extras.
Brotherhood of the Wolf is great fun as a movie. I was very disappointed in the HD DVD's video quality, but it's still an improvement over the DVD and merits a recommendation, even if not quite as enthusiastically as I'd hoped. Depending on which packaging you prefer, the French HD DVD can be purchased from Amazon France or the British HD DVD from Xploited Cinema (the British disc is cheaper).