wolf

The badass you see above you is none other than Wolfhound, main character and hero of the Russian fantasy movie named after him. At first glance Wolfhound is a rip-off of Conan the Barbarian and even after the credits roll, you’ll feel like it borrows a lot from that particular playbook. In spite of the odd translation I watched and a few rough spots here and there, this turns out to be an entirely good thing. Wolfhound is an ambitious and badass fantasy movie and its existence makes me happy. It will make you happy too.

First, since there’s almost no chance anyone reading this will have heard about this, let me get some plot details out of the way. Wolfhound basically follows the adventures of a slave captured as a child by a death-cult and then forced to work his whole life in dismal mines. Along the way, he develops a friendship with a crippled bat and becomes a compassionate, if laconic fellow. Eventually he  wins his freedom to go seek revenge and get caught up not only in the fate of a princess and her beloved but cursed city, but the same death-cult that fucked his life up in the first place. Along the way, some strays come along for the ride and much blood is spilled. Mostly by Wolfhound, who is basically a bearded death-machine.

In case you missed it above, I will repeat: Wolfhound’s best friend is a fucking bat. Yes, you read that right. A bat. It’s cute as fuck, photogenic, and ultimately proves able to ruin faces, hurl rocks, and back Wolfhound up like a good wingman (see what I did there?) should. A fucking bat. And not only is Torn-Wing a badass batty companion, he is also the best CG animal I have ever seen. Period. So good that I spent most of the film trying to figure out if it was CG at all. The artists deserve palaces for their attention to detail in the movement alone. I hope I find out that they used a real bat sometimes just so I can forgive lesser effects in other, higher-budget movies of the future. I’m looking at you, Hollywood. This is how you do it.

This is a bat.His name is Torn-Wing.

You’ll probably read some shit about how this is Conan meets Lord of the Rings. That’s what all the English-language posters say but they are kind of missing the point, quite like the Equilibrium posters missed the point by constantly referring to The Matrix. While Wolfhound does borrow a few moments (especially the opening scene, which feels like an honest tribute) and a lot of sensibility from the 80’s Arnie epic, probably the best film of its kind ever made, it is definitely its own thing. It bears little resemblance to Lord of the Rings, existing in a much more human-centric and much less exotic fantasy world seemingly based (but I don’t know for sure) on the kind of pseudo-Nordic mythology I imagine influenced Russian culture. There is definitely a Nordic feel to things. The Lord of the Rings comparison might come from a few of the sets (particularly a Mordor-like mountain pass at the film’s climax) and the Sauron effect used when Zhadoba swings his mighty sword, but ultimately there just isn’t much to align Wolfhound with other well-known fantasy films except for that it’s a fantasy film and one of the very rare good ones.

Part of what makes this so fun is that the CG effects are kept to a minimum except where they will be most effective. Particularly great are the aforementioned bat effects as well as an impressively handled sequence involving a dangerous foggy ghost thing. Where the film fully indulges its grandiosity is in the final battle, where Wolfhound calls to the Gods for help and is granted a giant fucking sword made of light in order to battle the avatar of Moranna, a death God which takes the form of a whirling serpent made of fire and rocks. I shit you not. The scene is fucking amazing partly because it’s slightly cheesy.

Another bit I loved was a virtuoso sequence told entirely through visuals and haunting music which recounts the part of Wolfhound’s backstory involving both his upbringing (along with bat friend!) in the Diamond Mountain mines and his eventual escape, for which he has earned some kind of legendary status among people afraid of the Moranna cultists. The film is worth it almost for the final part of this sequence alone, wherein Wolfhound desperately seeks the small shaft of light that penetrates his prison after winning his freedom. It’s the kind of thing that elevates the very wicked fantasy action that dominates the rest of the film into something a little more special. In addition, there’s a running subplot involving some kind of magical woman who seems to be looking out for our hero, but whose identity is never fully reviewed (but strongly hinted at by the end).

Now while Wolfhound deserves special praise just for having the balls to be what it is, there are a few things that detract from the experience. One of them is the lack of narrative usefulness of various secondary characters. Most of them drop in and out of the movie, especially the main cast of supporting buddies that Wolfhound picks up. They mostly show how compassionate he is to the downtrodden, which tells us just about everything we need to know about his personality and fundamental heroism. Aside from this, they contribute little. The Princess and principle villains are the exception to this as they are given much more screentime and stuff to do once Wolfhound leaves his original crew to become the Princess’s bodyguard as the cultists try to kill her.

Another issue, and probably a more critical one though your mileage may vary, is the fast-editing and spikes of incoherence that sometimes plague the action sequences. While there isn’t a lot of pandering or “hero shots” to distract from the gritty “fuck you, this is war” violence, there’s also a lot of places where better editing would have made the nuances of the fight sequences shine a bit more. That said, there’s enough swordplay and badassery to make this a very small weakness overall.

In spite of the relative weakness of some of the action, the opening and closing set-pieces are brilliant. The opener is a hollow mountain fortress criss-crossed with bridges that Wolfhound sets on fire. Then, making his escape, he basically fights through hordes of enemies while bouncing around flaming shit. It’s awesome. The end is in the Mordor-like mountain area I mentioned before, which features a great bridge battle and of course a fight with a fucking God.

I encourage you people to seek this out, especially if you like sword and sorcery flicks. This is as close to a contemporary Conan the Barbarian as you’re going to get. Find it, watch it with subtitles as the dubbed version is allegedly awful, and you will see why I’m giving it such heavy praise. More movies like this should be made, so thank the Cinema Gods for Russia.

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