This French production uses the kitchen sink method: a little historical politics, a little period costuming, a sprinkling of mysticism, an overdose of martial arts, and a big bad wolf (or perhaps it's just Grandma wearing a wolf's outfit). Throw this mishmash together and you've got a film that takes itself way too seriously, and one that ultimately fails in just about every way.
The story begins earnestly enough, with some Marquis penning a tale that took place several years earlier concerning a "beast" that is terrorizing the citizens of a French province. The king sends a "naturalist" to the area more because he's curious and wants to see the beast himself than because of any effort the protect his subjects (and isn't that just the way it always is with these damned kings?)
As the "naturalist" and his Indian companion traverse the countryside (and I must admit there is some beautiful photography to be viewed), they come upon some ruffians who are tormenting an old man and what appears to be his daughter. The Indian companion gets off his horse, walks into the fray and goes all Bruce Lee on the hapless Frenchies - uh oh, first misstep (as I'm wondering how a Canadian Indian in 1750 is hip to all that fu stuff).
From there the Naturalist meets up with the upper crust of the Province, and for some reason the filmmakers decide to include about a hundred characters, as if each and every one is important (here's a clue, they're not). This gives the filmmakers the opportunity to show that the upper crust were a bunch of bigots, equating the Indian "savages" to the "Negro in Africa". Ooh, sociology lesson kiddies!
The film then introduces a "love interest"... of course they do, this is a French film, what did you expect. Said affair de amour isn't just superfluous however, and in better hands could have made a substantial impact on the film. Alas! The film spends a great deal of time chatting amongst all the Dukes etc. and it is decided that they will marshal all the townspeople and local militia and go on a great hunt to capture or kill the "wolf". While on the hunt, the Naturalist and the Duchess or whatever she is, get separated (but fear not, for Jackie Chan comes with them - so no hanky panky occurs). In its place you get a bit of mysticism, as first the Indian says that he hears the dead speaking to him (hello, Indian dude, Bruce Willis here...) and then becomes the wolf whisperer, as a white wolf (Elric, where are ya when we need ya?) seems able to communicate with the Indian.
Of course the "beast" remains elusive, but heck, we all had a good time hunting, including yet another scene where the locals pit their meager talents against Jet Li, all while the girl who was being harassed by the ruffians in the scene where we first met the Indian watches with glee. She has one of those eye to eye thingies with the Indian, all filled with portents (of what we have no idea, and, funny thing, never will - though it is rumored that the wench is a witch - always wanted to use that bit of alliteration).
The film then makes up for the lack of hanky panky during the hunt by having the Marquis invite the Naturalist (and the Indian) to a brothel, whereupon the Naturalist, naturally (he he) meets up with a mysterious Italian (wow, what an international film we've got going here) who is obviously much more than a whore (even though she resides in the brothel).
So that's the setup - whew! To summarize, we've got a love interest, but the hero is also shagging the Italian. The Italian is "owed favors", probably in return for her favors, and remains a "woman of mystery". We've got a beast terrorizing the countryside, but after half of France goes a hunting, he remains unseen (it's as if the wolf is human, able to think and reason... hmmm, another red herring, or just red riding hood?). We've got possible witchcraft as well as a spiritual Indian who talks to the animals (Rex Harrison, may ye rest in peace), who is also versed in martial arts.
At this point we're almost half way through the 2.5 hour running time, and while the kung fu stuff taking place in 18th century France is pretty hilarious, I was at least entertained. Ah, but then things start to seriously unravel. The king sends some specialist hunter, direct from the court in Versailles (because, as everybody knows, the best hunters wear all those frilly costumes). There is a bit of deceit, the beast is pronounced dead and the Naturalist is ordered to return to Paris, where he is commissioned to head off to Africa - end of story. Or is it? No, the Naturalist knows of the deceit, and when the killings in the province resume, decides to return upon the request of the Marquis and the love interest, in spite of express orders by the monarchy to stay away.
There is yet another scene of a fresh-faced maiden being hunted by... well, you get the picture - and here I was wondering how all those peasant girls were so clean and rosy cheeked, even while sloshing through muddy bogs - silly me.
From here mystery and mysticism run rampant - there's some stuff involving a secret sect commissioned by the Pope (hmm, maybe the Naturalist can consult with Tom Hanks, or Nick Cage), all rolled up into a big mess where the film tries to wrap up each and every single plot thread - like the audience is supposed to care about what happens to some guy who only has 5 minutes of prior film time (was he a Duke, a Marquis, or the piss boy?).
Any film runs into serious trouble when it takes itself so seriously while asking you to believe in some pretty preposterous premises (that's PPP - I'm going to trademark the phrase). Having a Jedi master in a film where gunpowder is a recent discovery is just a bit jarring, but that's not the half of it. In attempting to make sense of everything, the film piles iffy proposition upon absurd proposition, upon plot convenience to build a mountain of.....merde? Including three or four false endings (all of which we could have done without), like a scene where the aged Marquis is brought before a teeming mob of peasants ("sire, the peasants are revolting" - "yes, they certainly are", yuck yuck) - I guess this was supposed to represent the revolution, and there's a funky bit of prose about the beast being quelled - said beast being the anger of the people, but really, was this viva la France moment really necessary, or for that matter the entire enterprise?
I also have to mention that there are some serious continuity issues here (but we're French, so we don't care about your silly continuity) - as well as a bit of truly bad CGI. The final analysis: if this film could have figured out what it wanted to be, it could have been much better, but the action film/political agenda - it's two, two, two films in one didn't do anyone any favors. I have some vague recollections of a film that was done by Disney back in the late 60's (of which I had a comic) called The Scarecrow - kind of a Robin Hoodish thing where an Englishman priest spent his evening hours confounding the crown's tax collectors - this film could have been like that, but would have required a much tighter narrative.