So I watched that remake of Conan the Barbarian the other day. You know, the one starring the guy with the funny last name? I was preparing to write a review but I found the story to be so thoroughly wearisome that it didn't even merit the effort to ridicule it in public. That is saying something as I was never a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger's muscle-headed original and figured they could only go up...but I guess I underestimated the extravagant incompetence of modern Hollywood. What a waste of time that movie turned out to be.
So, in retrospect, I guess it isn't surprising that I took so well to Wolfhound, a Russian import billed as the "first Slavic fantazy". It was here that I found what was missing from the atrocious Conan: a fantasy movie that was something more than one mindless action sequence after another. Wolfhound has action, yes, but also heart; brawn but also brains.
Wolfhound - full name: Wolfhound from the Grey Hound Clan (Volkodav iz roda Serykh Psov) - is a fantasy movie, based on Mariya Semyonova's novel of the same name, about a hero that bears more than a little passing resemblance to the Conan mythos itself. Indeed, the opening sequence is right out of Conan: a young boy of destiny who is suddenly orphaned when his village is attacked by "the Man-Eater", leaving him as the last of his clan and doomed to a life in the mines as a slave. Fortunately, this copycat-ish introduction, which also borrows more than a little from Lord of the Ring's idyllic Hobbiton for the initial village setting - complete with wistful pipe music, no less - ends quickly and the movie is off on its own direction from there.
After this brief intro, one that seems very tacked on in retrospect, we are reintroduced to Wolfhound, this time as a be-scarred and bedraggled man (played by the perfectly cast Aleksandr Bukharov); one so impoverished that his sole companion in the world is a lame bat that sits contentedly on his soldier. Wolfhound, we quickly learn, is out for revenge and plans on infiltrating the castle of his childhood nemesis, the Man-Eater. It is clear that he knows that this foolhardy quest will likely mean his death as we see him tenderly place his bat friend on a branch and utter a last goodbye. His goodbyes done, Wolfhound is off to seek his destiny.
As you probably surmised, Wolfhound does not meet his end in the castle, but instead has quite the exciting adventure within, both confronting his nemesis and freeing two prisoners from the nefarious lord's dungeon who subsequently become Wolfhound's new BFFs. And from there things only get more interesting as he becomes sucked into a grandiose power play involving a princess in distress, a Darth Vader-like warrior out to free an imprisoned evil Druid goddess, and assorted ruffians determined to pick a fight with our hero just because he is our hero. Good times.
I think the thing I liked best about this movie is that Wolfhound is a traditional "good guy" hero. Unlike Hollywood's fascination with anti-heroes (not surprising given the mores of that town) - you know, "heroes" that only are heroic if it suits their self-centered agenda (e.g., Ridley Scott's priest-murdering Balian, or Momoa's rakish Conan) - Wolfhound is an old school hero who is constantly sacrificing his own good for the good of others, in some cases people he just met. I think this charitable nature of Wolfhound is wonderfully realized when he finds himself in Galirad, a cursed village locked in an eternal winter complete with menacing gray clouds that forever hang over the settlement (very effective CGI and cinematography here). There is a wonderful scene where Wolfhound stumbles across an enslaved preacher being mocked by his slavemaster for his religious beliefs. Well, Wolfhound will have none of it and demands that the ridicule come to an end. When the slavemaster sneers and asks what business it is of his, Wolfhound replies "I pray to my gods and try not to offend the gods of others" and challenges the slavemaster to a duel for the preacher's freedom. Not surprisingly, he wins that duel but the slavemaster still will not free the preacher without being paid. Not deterred, he tosses the slavemaster a coin purse containing the reward he had just received for rescuing Galirad's princess (in an earlier battle that was quite entertaining in its own right). Still not satisfied, the slavemaster demands Wolfhound's prized sword. Wolfhound hesitates and lovingly glances at the weapon, but then throws the sword down and makes off with the freed slave in exchange. Clearly miffed, Wolfhound stalks off, but still offers the preacher a meal out of kindness. When the preacher refuses, protesting that he already cannot repay Wolfhound, our (real) hero shrugs his shoulders and walks away...only to suddenly stop and return once more. Carefully counting out the last few coins he has left, Wolfhound gives them to the preacher for a meal, and takes his leave again. Wow.
This theme of charity and concern for others runs throughout the movie, a surprising twist in such a hack-and-slash film. Indeed, early in the film Wolfhound has a vision of the Marian-like character Mother Kendarat. During this vision, Wolfhound asks for help in hunting down another warrior, the Darth Vader-like Zhadoba, but Mother Kendarat refuses and reminds Wolhound that "the world is "ruled by love." Double wow. Again and again Wolfhound, and his growing band of devotees, put themselves on the line for others and often at great cost. Fittingly, that cost is often unexpectedly repaid at later points in the film, proving what goes around, comes around (or Proverbs 12:14, if you prefer). There is a very real moral message at the heart of Wolfhound, one that sets it way above most other films of the genre (Lord of the Rings is the only other exception that comes to mind for me).
Another thing I liked about Wolfhound is the light fantasy setting. Wolfhound reminds me of a good session of Dungeon and Dragons complete with blind mystics, magic powders, mysterious assassins, and powerful warriors that can knock three men down with a single swipe of the sword. Even the dialogue seems to be lifted from your typical RPG, such as when Wolfhound approaches the town blacksmith and is greeted with the standard RPG dialogue of "You want a new scabbard or perhaps some armor?" Skyrim déjà vu!
Another enjoyable aspect of the film is its Russian setting. Just as Tarkovsky's Stalker benefitted immensely from its Estonian setting, Nikolai Lebedev's Wolfhound makes good use of Russia's sweeping vistas that often seem right out of a medieval tale. However, I think it could have been done a bit more effectively as Lebedev never really makes the scenery an intimate part of the story as Tarkovsky did, or, more appropriately, as Peter Jackson accomplished with Lord of the Rings. Rather, the majesty of the Russian setting always seems limited to sweeping backdrops that are never brought to the fore in a tangible way.
I also found the action sequences in Wolfhound to be well executed. The movie makes judicious use of CGI to effectively enhance the traditional hack and slash combat. Some of the action sequences even had me on the edge of my seat, such as when Wolfhound has to stop an assassination of the Princess Knesinka Helen (played by the striking Oksana Akinshina). Daggers fly one way, while Wolfhound's sword is thrown in the other...what happens? Go see! I also got a kick out of everyone using broadswords as it definitely added a hefty kick to the combat to see wooden shields repeatedly split in half. Combat can be surprisingly bloody too, even if it is CGI blood at times (European filmmakers seem to prefer this technique for some reason).
Lastly, the acting tied the entire movie together. I really enjoyed Aleksandr Bukharov's portrayal of Wolfhound as a reluctant hero. It was amusing to see such a "man of destiny" become believably bewildered by the crazy situations he finds himself in, quite unlike the always self-assured heroes of other films. Oksana Akinshina also brought Princess Knesinka Helen to life as a young girl trying to faithfully serve her people during a chaotic time. And the Earthbound Bat (sorry, couldn't find its real name ) stole the show with its squeaky heroics and its "awww, it's so creepy cute" performance.
Speaking of the acting: I recommend that you watch the film with the dubbed English soundtrack rather than the subtitles. Heretical, I know. But I have to say that I found the English voice acting to be far more energetic than the original Russian which sounded strangely flat to my ear, as if the actors were just reading the lines without emotion. Once I switched to the English dub I found myself enjoying the film much more. Perhaps it's a cultural thing, but there you go.
So What's Not to Like?
Of course, Wolfhound is not a perfect film. In fact, at times it seems like one of those "B" sci-fi / fantasy movies from decades past that proved to be so much fun precisely because they didn't take themselves that seriously. Hence, you will want to roll your eyes at times, even if it also makes you giggle a bit.
As I mentioned above, parts of Wolfhound seem like they came right out of a session of D&D. That can be a good thing...or a nerdy bad thing. Case in point: the dialogue. At times it is cringe worthy. In fact, I swear that some of the lines in this film were copied verbatim from an actual session of D&D. Yeah, that bad.
Likewise, some of the characterizations. I think the worst is Tilorn, a sage who looks a twenty-something with a white haired wig. Worse, he even sounds like a youngster doing his best wizard impression. Even more bizarre is his strange past: he is originally described as an architect, yet we quickly learn that he is both blind and a worker of magic. Huh? Who rolled this guy's character sheet?
Then there is the plot. The good news: there actually is a plot. The bad news: after watching the movie twice, I'm still not clear about everything. Heck, I don't think the writers or director were clear on the plot. Even websites dedicated to the film don't agree on all the plot points, something I discovered while checking some facts for this review. It is just so confused at times that you can't help but to scratch your head.
Take, for example, the confused relationship between Man-Eater and Zhadoba. In the beginning of the film, they are seen working together to wipe out Wolfhound's village. Later, we learn the two now hate each other and actively seek the others destruction. Huh? When did that happen, and why? Then we have the mystery of the magical key which opens the Celestial Gates. Early on, we see Princess Knesinka meeting with Man-Eater to obtain the return of the key as it seems at some earlier point in the story (one we are not privy to) Man-Eater stole the key but didn't realize what he had stolen. So...why did he steal it then? And, for that matter, how did Knesinka know he was the thief in the first place? And if she did suspect he stole it, why did she travel to his castle all alone to beg for its return instead of bringing an army at her back? And why did the theft of the key subsequently curse Gilirad? So much confusion! And that's just in the first half hour!
To be fair to the movie, I suspect much of this confusion is due to heavy redaction of the script. Wolfhound clocks in at a healthy 2 hours & 22 minutes, so I suspect the original screenplay was much longer and needed to be mercilessly cut down, hence all these floating plot points. Truth be told, even though the script is filled with holes, I actually think it adds to the charm. You can tell that Wolfhound is set in a complex world and wasn't something just scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin by some studio hack Conan.
At its heart, Wolfhound is a fun romp that should warm the hearts of people who like D&D, or look kindly on the "B" fantasies of decades past, such as 1981's cult classic Hawk the Slayer. Filled with action and some light magic, it also provides a decent morality tale in the best tradition of the "hero with a sword" mythos. While far from a perfect film, its charm will surely win over many a fan. And while this is not the cinematic version of "The Witcher" as I had hoped (The Witcher being another Slavic fantasy, of course), it is nonetheless a tale worth watching in its own right. Long live the Grey Hound Clan!