After the global success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, to say nothing of the Harry Potter books and movies I hear were mildly popular for a brief period, most everyone assumed the world was ready for a glut of big-budget fantasy films full of heroic posing and dodgy CGI effects. While there were attempts — The Golden Compass, a few Chronicles of Narnia films, that lavish epic In the Name of the King from Dr. Uwe Boll and featuring King Burt Reynolds — most of those attempts fell flat on their face, and the cash-in trend died before it took off.
There’s a number of reasons they probably failed. For one, by the time any of these films were rolling into production, society had forgotten about hobbits and moved on to sallow-faced vampire teens. Second, the CGI in most of the films that were released made even the worst of The Lord of the Rings‘ transgressions seem mild by comparison. The Chronicles of Narnia films, in particular, managed to spend tens of millions of dollars to achieve CGI effects that would have been slightly cheap looking in a television show from the early 2000s. The Harry Potter cash-ins fared even worse, mostly because they were given incredibly long titles no one could remember. Percy Jackson and the what now? The Owls of where? And only one of the Harry Potter cash-ins featured Nicolas Cage in a funny hat, when it’s a well-known fact that every movie should feature Nicolas Cage in a funny hat, even if it’s just as a background character.
When the last big flood of fantasy films hit screens — way back in the 1980s, following in the wake of Conan the Barbarian — they were made by directors and producers who managed to make cheap look less cheap because poorly done practical effects almost never look as shoddy as poorly done CGI effects. Even the crummiest rubber puppet still looks better than crummy CGI (the immobile Satan puppet in Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare is a possible, if delightful, exception). But the other big difference between then and now is that the sword and sorcery boom of the 1980s benefitted from the emerging popularity of cable television and home video and the novelty of being able to watch an uncut, commercial-free R-rated movie in the comfort of your own living room. Movies that failed in the theaters or failed to make it to theaters found an audience at home, allowing them to sustain the trend far longer than would have been possible if everyone was aiming for multi-million dollar blockbusters.
And indeed it’s true today that if you turn away from movie screens and turn instead to television screens, there are a lot more Lord of the Rings cash-ins than ever made it to theaters. Sure, most of them were on the SyFy Channel and featured at least a cameo by John Rhys-Davies alongside lots of terrible CGI, but there they were. For once those Eastern European locations worked to a films’ advantage. It’s much easier to pass off Bulgaria as “medieval-ish fantasy land” than it is to pass it off as Cleveland. So while that was going on over here, a few other countries decided to get in on the big-budget fantasy film as well. Among those films is the sprawling Russian sword and sorcery epic Wolfhound.
Anyone who knows the tropes of the sword and sorcery genre will be on familiar ground with this movie, but the fact that Wolfhound lacks originality doesn’t mean it lacks for entertainment value. It’s fantasy formula well done, with some decent performances, gorgeous location work, and a lack of the smirking irony that befouls most of the fantasy fare on SyFy. The official story is that it’s based on a novel from 1995 by Mariya Semyonova, but I think it’s pretty obvious where the true influences lie. While this film obviously got made as a Russian answer to Lord of the Rings, it has a lot more in common with Conan the Barbarian, including an opening scene and motivation for the main character that is basically plucked wholesale from the John Milius barbarian classic. Also like Conan, it’s a relatively small-scale film that plays out against a vast backdrop that gives it a much more epic feel. Similar to New Zealand in Lord of the Rings and Spain in Conan, the mountains, forests, and rolling green fields of Slovakia practically become a character in this movie. Anyway…
Young Wolfhound is living the standard barbarian life, wandering around while his father makes a sword and his mother gathers nettles or whatever it is nomadic Russian barbarians eat. In a sword and sorcery film, you know if there’s a shot of a husband and wife smiling and looking lovingly at each other as they cheerfully go about their daily chores, neither one of them is going to survive to see the opening credits. And sure enough, hewing exactly to the standard barbarian movie playbook, Wolfhound’s village is set upon by marauders. For some reason, this village of adept barbarian warriors has, like pretty much every village in the history of sword and sorcery films, absolutely nothing in the way of defenses. No walls, no moat, not even a lookout to warn them that a giant band of armed killers is heading their way. Said marauders ride under the banner of a wolf. Generally, when the reason you know a brigand horde is going to attack you is because one of them has just run you through with a sword, your chances of eking a victory out of the situation are slim, and such is the case for pretty much everyone in the town but young Wolfhound. They even take the sweet sword Wolfhound’s dad just finished forging. What a bunch of jerks.
We then skip ahead twenty years or so and reacquaint ourselves with Wolfhound, now all grown up and turned into hunky, bearded, vengeance-seeking Aleksandr Bukharov. Adult Wolfhound (we don’t get to see what happened to him during the previous twenty years until a flashback later in the film) is in the process of seeking revenge against Man-Eater, one of the two men who led the attack on our hero’s idyllic childhood home. Wolfhound makes pretty short work of Man-Eater, and rescues a female slave (gorgeous Evgeniya Sviridova) and a not-as-pretty grizzled old blind wizard. But Wolfhound’s job is only half done, as Man-Eater’s sometimes ally, sometimes opponent Zhadoba is really the one for which Wolfhound is gunning. Or swording. Wolfhound and his tiny pack set out toward the city-state of Galirad and en route hook up with a caravan that is secretly transporting the local princess, Elen (Oksana Akinshina). As luck would have it, the caravan is quickly set upon by Zhadoba and his brigands, allowing Wolfhound to prove himself worthy of being in the princess’ employ though he fails to actually kill Zhadoba during this encounter.
Although their time in Galiad was meant only to be sort of a rest stop, things go poorly for Wolfhound. He is accused of himself being Man-Eater based on the sword he carries (which was the sword the brigand stole from Wolfhound’s father back in the day, and Wolfhound reclaimed). When he rescues a young scholar from slavery, the overly noble swordsman then gets on the bad side of the local slavers. And it turns out that Zhadoba has put an evil spell on the town, resulting in a perpetual storm hovering over everything and allowing the film makers to do that washed out blue tinting they love so much these days. In the end though, Wolfhound’s stubborn commitment to being compassionate and bad-ass ingratiates him to the young princess, who hires him to be her bodyguard on a perilous quest. His newfound association with Princess Elen will plunge the hirsute warrior headlong into a boiling cauldron of medieval political intrigue, wizardry, and modestly scaled battles leading to a big showdown in the mountains with Zhadoba and an ancient evil the bad guys have been trying to revive, since that’s about all bad guys are ever up to in these movies.
I found quite a bit to enjoy in Wolfhound, generic though most of the movie may be. Despite the “let’s do a Russian Lord of the Rings” thinking that led to the movie, it avoids the Peter Jackson trilogy’s moments of overblown sentimentality and attempts to force a sense of wonder onto the audience whether they want one at that moment or not (and don’t mistake me — despite the japes I make at its expense from time to time and my unwavering belief that Gandalf was a terrible leader, I really like The Lord of the Rings movies). Wolfhound maintains a much more stoic tone, with a lot fewer blubbering hobbits giving speeches about loyalty and friendship. On the one hand, it makes for slightly flat characters. On the other, it gives the movie a more serious feel. Like Conan the Barbarian, Wolfhound sells the seriousness because all of the actors commit to their roles, however one-dimensional they may be.
And sometimes, one dimension works. The princess, the wizard, and the freed slave girl are all one-note characters, but they do quite well within the limits of those characters. The only one who really suffers is Wolfhound himself. He’s so relentlessly grim and stoic that he starts to become a little boring. Aleksandr Bukharov certainly looks the part of a wild Rus warrior, but as an actor he lacks the charisma of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan. Conan managed to drum up a fair amount of depth and development for its titular barbarian, and I really do think Arnold was great at conveying the journey of self-discovery his character undergoes. Wolfhound, by contrast, steps onto the screen as Wolfhound, and his character never seems to grow, change, or evolve in any way. Nor does the story give him any reason to need to. I do like that he’s not a perfect warrior. He makes mistakes and even loses fights, but it seems like they could have done more with him given the character’s backstory. I certainly wouldn’t want to see him turn in the jokey sort of anachronistic performances we get from Kevin Sorbo in his forays into the sword and sorcery genre, though. There is a middle ground. Wolfhound is sort of like Aragorn in Lord of the Rings if Aragorn didn’t have some more light-hearted characters around him to take the edge off his frowny gloominess.
The film’s two most interesting characters are actually two of its least important. There’s a bad-ass female soldier who accompanies Wolfhound and his procession on a mission to deliver the princess to her eventual groom, and then there’s the groom himself, Vinitar (Anatoliy Belyy) — who happens to be Man-Eater’s son. It turns out that Man-Eater and Zhadoba, though both bad guys, sort of canceled each other out by constantly vying with each other for influence. With Man-Eater out of the picture, the balance of evil shifted dramatically in the favor of Zhadoba, who it turns out was the way more evil of the two. In an effort to restore the balance somewhat, Princess Elen is betrothed to Vinitar as part of a strategic alliance. It is the attempt to deliver Elen to Vinitar that gives this movie the bulk of its quest, and Vinitar himself is a pretty interesting character. He obviously honors and respects his father and wants to avenge his murder at the hands of Wolfhound. But Vinitar is definitely not like his father, and is an altogether more honorable man. Too bad he’s in the movie for such a tiny amount.
Let me amend to that. The most interesting character is actually Wolfhound’s diminutive sidekick bat. Yes, Wolfhound has gone all Beastmaster on us, and his best friend and most dependable brother-in-arm is a bat. Not a wolf, or a hound, but a bat. Actually, I don’t think this movie contains any wolves or hounds other than Wolfhound himself. But there is a bat, and he’s one hell of a heroic bat at that. This means no matter how dull Wolfhound may sometimes be (don’t suppose they could have named him Batface or something), he’s always made instantly more interesting by the fact that he has a bat sidekick. Just when you think Wolfhound might be stoic-ing it up a little too much, some sort of battle will break out so he can stop staring stone-faced at someone and start screaming and waving around his sword while his bat drops walnuts on people or claws their face. When that is happening, Wolfhound is a lot more interesting.
The battle scenes themselves are decent. There are no clashes between armies of thousands, so it lacks that sense of scale. That also means it lacks the tedium of watching thousands of little CGI guys running toward each other with no plan other than “thousands of guys run at each other.” was that really the standard tactic in medieval battles? I feel like they might have had better ideas, but I am no scholar of medieval warfare and so cannot back up this assertion. Wolfhound has more skirmishes than battles, but most of them are pretty exciting if choreographed in a slightly jumbled manner.
Although the movie doesn’t demand as many special effects as bigger budget Hollywood movies, Wolfhound still calls down the fury of the gods in the form of CGI effects pretty frequently, including for the final showdown that is almost entirely special effects driven as our hero punches a tornado. Most of the effects are surprisingly well realized, at least on par with what you’d get from Hollywood. The difference in budget between this and your typical blockbuster is not the least bit evident to my eyes, but then that’s because blockbuster budgets usually go mostly to pay for bloated salaries, insurance, and marketing. Wolfhound also knows when to lay off the CGI and just let actual things and places do their job, which is one of the complaints I had about the recent otehrwise very enjoyable Solomon Kane movie no one seems to want to release. It was great fun but CGI’d things up a little too often.
I’m still pretty new to modern Russian directors and stars. The only cast member with which I was familiar was Oksana Akinshina, who appered in the controversial Lilya 4-Ever that made a splash on the international arthouse scene a few years ago. Writer-director Nikolay Lebedev certainly knows his way around making a en epic fantasy film though. The film boasts good pacing and gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Irek Hartowicz. They do use the digital color correction that so many film makers love and so many audience members hate, but at least they don’t employ it in a completely gratuitous manner. Colors are brown and drab when our heroes are in the cursed city, but as soon as they leave, the film allows itself to actually have some chromatic life. Which is nice, considering how dramatic the locations are. Where as many of the low-budget fantasy films in the United States feel decidedly small-screen, Hartowicz and Lebedev know how to give their big budget Russian film (which probably still equates to a small budget American film) a truly epic look. They take full advantage of the widescreen format and fill every scene with sweeping vistas and vast landscapes.
Wolfhound may be nothing more than a by-the-numbers fantasy film, but it hits all those numbers well. If you’re a fan of the genre, there’s more than enough on display to make Wolfhound one of the better entries. And if you happen to be a fan of the old Russian fantasy films directed by Aleksandr Ptushko, it’ll probably be interesting to see how the Russian fantasy film has changed in the last half decade. Aspects of Wolfhound are certainly more “Hollywood” than you would have found in the old films like Ilya Muromets and Sadko. Wolfhound’s bat, for instance, doesn’t have a musical number, and there’s a lot less jolly laughing and capering. Other aspects of the film, however, still feel like slicker versions of things you might have found in the old Ptushko films. In particular, the manifestation of Wolfhound’s protective spirit mother feel like they could have come right out of the old films, and some of the sets hearken back to the highly stylized look of the Ptushko movies. Ultimately, the lack of smirking irony and the ability to not look small-scale places Wolfhound a cut above the rest. It doesn’t have enough going for it to be considered any sort of fantasy classic, but it’s a solid, highly entertaining bit of adventure film making. Plus, you know, it’s got that awesome bat.
Release Year: 2007 | Country: Russia | Starring: Aleksandr Bukharov, Oksana Akinshina, Igor Petrenko, Evgeniya Todorashko, Aleksandr Domogarov, Anatoliy Belyy, Rezo Esadze, Natalya Varley, Yuozas Budraytis, Sergey Miller, Andrey Rudenskiy, Evgeniya Sviridova, Artyom Semakin, Nina Usatova, Tatyana Lyutaeva | Screenplay: Nikolay Lebedev | Director: Nikolay Lebedev | Cinematography: Ireneusz Hartowicz | Music: Aleksei Rybnikov | Original Title: Volkodav iz roda Serykh Psov