Wolfhound (2007) dir. Nikolai Lebedev
Starring: Aleksandr Bukharov, Oksana Akinshina, Aleksandr Domogarov, Igor Petrenko
For me, no one does melodrama better than the Russians. Perhaps it’s the sheer size and uncompromising environment that brings out the heart and soul of the people from their art. Though it’s no “War and Peace”, or “Doctor Zhivago” “Wolfhound” – a large scale sword and sorcery fantasy is in the tradition of these “big” stories. Billed as “Russia’s” “Lord of the Rings”, it comes close to being one of the best in the genre of medieval fantasy.
Having just seen and given two stars to Uwe Boll’s take on sword and sorcery – “In the Name of the King” with Jason Statham, “Wolfhound” towers over that film and stomps on it like a blow from a blunt mace to the head. Speaking of blunt maces to the head, the film owes a lot to “Braveheart”. The opening sequence establishes the lead character’s journey, when we see in flashback our hero’s innocent farming parents brutally murdered right in front of the child’s young eyes. Like William Wallace after his new bride is murdered, “Wolfhound” makes it his lifelong mission to avenge their deaths.
When he takes down his first victim in a violent and brutal fight in a castle, he takes with him a female tagalong (a traditional element of the genre) Princess Helen, a Russian Goddess who will soon be crowned Queen of land. Wolfhound and Helen are joined in their quest by a blind wizard and a few other warriors, slaves and scholars. Oh, I forgot Wolfhound’s pet bat as his sidekick – a definite first for the genre. Like R2D2 or Twinkle Bell his bat is his trusted ally and comes to his aide on a number of occasions. It’s corny, but each and every time it put a childlike smile to my face. I won’t go into detail about the quest and the special rock-like key that supposed to open the gates of Callidor (or something like that). There’s also a love story between the scarred warrior Wolfhound and the Princess. Typically her hand is already taken by another prince, but Wolfhound’s sensitive power is able to win her love. It's all food for the sweeping majesty and melodrama of the genre.
“Wolfhound” apparently had the largest post-Soviet budget for a film. And it’s on the screen. The special effects are mostly invisible to the eye. Even though people told me the bat was CGI, I still couldn’t tell. The film also has an aged, 80’s feel to it. Like 80’s classics “The Sword and the Sorcerer” or “Flesh and Blood”. Trust me, “Wolfhound” is not a nostalgia-fest, it’s taken very seriously and there’s ample bucks on screen to make it look believable.
As director, I don’t know who this Nikolai Lebedev guy is, but he’s definitely got some cinematic chutzpah. There’s at least 6 to 8 awesome sequences that get the blood pumping and adrenaline flowing. There’s a great sequence intercutting three transition scenes – the Princess’ coronation, the evil lord’s preparations for battle, and ceremonial goat killing – set to a heart pounding drum score. Lebedez turns what could have been a perfunctory montage scene into fun music video style exercise. There’s great battle between “Wolfhound” and a lifelike white fog that’s one of the more creative action sequences I’ve seen in a while. Wolf’s final battle against the tornado rock creature has certain biblical allegories and Lebedev’s framing of the gothic imagery feels like a Wagner score put to life.
Lebedev is clearly steeped in the cinematic fantasy and action cinema. There’s lot of “Excalibur”, “Braveheart”, “Gladiator”, “Lord of the Rings”, and a subtle dose of “Raiders of the Lost”. Though there’s a lot Spielbergian camera movements, it’s the attitude and joyful cinematic tone of Indiana Jones that really shines through.
My pals whom I saw the film with complained about its corniness. Indeed the love story and Wolfhound’s overly dramatic arc of revenge moves well into melodrama, but it’s a genre film, and though it may not match “Lord of the Rings”, there’s plenty of room at the top to make it worthy companion film. The Russians wear their hearts on their sleeves and considering their history of pain and suffering, and the damned cold weather, they are allowed to rejoice loud and grandiose as they want. I'll always listen. Enjoy.
PS I don't know when this film will get a North American release. If anyone has any info, please send a comment.