Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Economists and historians have suggested that slavery is a fundamentally inefficient and thus ultimately untenable institution. One factor rendering slavery inefficient is the risk that comes with overworking your slaves. For instance, let's say you have a bunch of captive kids turning a mill wheel in the middle of nowhere. If you work any one of those brats hard enough, he'll get big and strong enough to turn the wheel all by himself. At that point it's probably a good idea to sell him to somebody who can use him as a pit fighter. Slavery can be dangerous because it strengthens the slaves.

Consider another scenario. You've bought a brat off a bunch of raiders who wiped out his village and his tribe and you put him to work in your mine in the Crystal Mountains. You try to keep him good and terrorized by beating him regularly and scarring his face, but as long as he keeps swinging that pickax he's going to build up some muscles. One day he isn't going to take your crap anymore, and on that day he'll be so strong that he can just wrap his shackled hands around your neck and it'll be all over. The wonder is that you don't have dozens of brawny mine veterans throttling their overseers when they come of age. Then again, in this particular scenario we should probably concede that the slave is someone special.

The ex-slave, Volkodav -- Wolfhound to us -- is the hero of a series of novels by Russian writer Maria Semyonova. He came to life on film in 2007, played by Aleksandr Bukharov in a movie directed by Nikolai Lebedev. From what I read, Russian readers recognized Semyonova's debt to Conan the Barbarian, or at least John Milius's movie version of the character, as soon as her books appeared. The Wolfhound movie opens Conan-style with Li'l Wolfhound watching his father forge a sword. The sword is promptly taken from Dad's cold, dead hands by a band of raiders, one of whom runs through Wolfhound's mom just to be mean. For some reason, the kid is spared for sale into slavery.

Aleksandr Bukarov as Wolfhound

We don't see how Wolfhound gets out of that predicament until much later in the picture. Lebedev saves that stuff for a flashback, maybe because Semyonova does it the same way, but probably in part because flashbacks are just what movies do. So the next time we see Wolfhound after his enslavement, he's a free (or fugitive) adult on a mission of vengeance against one of the men who killed his people, the charmingly named Man-Eater. Our hero kills his man and rescues a girl and a blind old man along the way. The old man is helpful because he knows heat-based healing magic, which he uses to mend up Wolfhound's beloved pet, the world's smartest bat.

Wolfhound has inadvertently tipped the balance of power in his world. Man-Eater had fallen out with his old partner and fellow-druid Zhaboda, a forbidding fellow in armor and what looks like an ape skull for a helmet. Each of these rivals hoped to release Morana the Deadly, an evil goddess, from her imprisonment in the faraway Celestial Gates. Zhaboda holds a trump-card with which he hopes to control the goddess: the magic sword forged by Wolfhound's father. Now, with Man-Eater out of the picture, Zhaboda can dream seriously of performing the ritual, which involves shedding the blood of a princess of Galirad, and gaining godlike power. Unfortunately, his band encounters Wolfhound while he's guarding his way to Galirad with a caravan, and the hero cuts off Zhaboda's sword hand, getting the sword in the bargain.


Arriving in Galirad, Wolfhound gets involved in the usual intrigues and makes some more friends. The city is under a curse, condemned to suffer under a CGI cloudscape, but the curse may be lifted if Princess Elen -- who had been in the caravan incognito -- agrees to a marriage to Man-Eater's more reasonable son and heir, Vinitar. After clearing up some confusion over his identity -- some folks assume, given the sword, that he's Zhaboda -- and saving a wispy young priest from religous persecution, Wolfhound hires out as a bodyguard for the Princess as she travels to her wedding with Vinitar, while his pals head out for the Celestial Gates on some exploratory mission. They're captured by the bad guys, of course, and in time everyone ends up at the Gates for a battle on a stone bridge. Will they stop Zhaboda from releasing Morana the Deadly? Why would anyone want to stop that? What kind of ending would we have then?...

Galirad (pronounced "Golly-rod" by most of the English-language dubbing actors)

Wolfhound is a film that gets better as it goes along, but it doesn't really get good until more than halfway through, and the first hour or so is a tough slog. Saving the hero's self-liberation for a late flashback leaves you asking how he got free for most of the picture, and not knowing how he did it is actually kind of frustrating. It might have worked better if his whole past were shown in flashback and we were introduced to him as a bitter adult whose agenda is revealed a little at a time. A deeper problem is Lebedev's lack of skill as an action director. He's like a director of bad musicals, more interested in editing than in showcasing virtuosity on screen. Many of the fight scenes are cut up nearly to the point of incoherence. Then again, Bukharov may have simply lacked the virtuosity needed for decent fight choreography, making the editing necessary to cover his inadequacy. I've never seen the man before so I can only speculate, but I can say more certainly that the action scenes make the film nearly painful to watch until it finally hits its stride.

The last half -hour or so of the film, from the big flashback that finally answers our early question to Wolfhound's delirious battle with a goddess seen only as a maelstrom of boulders, is clearly where most of the budget and most of Lebedev's inventiveness went. It's wild fun on a primal level to see Wolfhound's sword transform into the world's longest light sabre so he can engage in cosmic-scale combat with Morana, and the effects mostly live up to the occasion.

Once I felt better about the film as a whole I could more fully appreciate some of the exotic, goofy details. Perhaps most exotic, and definitely most goofy, is Wolfhound's bat, a pet he's had since it injured a wing and fell into the young slave's mine. "Ragged Wing" ranks up there with Lassie and Trigger as an educated animal. In a pinch, it can grab a rock and drop it on an enemy's head. It can untie knots with its paws and free prisoners. It does everything but turn into a vampire, and I think my friend Wendigo would agree that Ragged Wing is the best bat effect of all time. I find it nearly impossible to dislike a movie with such a wonderful nutty element in it. For that reason, I recommend Wolfhound with reservations to fantasy fans. It advertises itself in America as some amalgam of Conan and Tolkien, but its idiosyncrasies are what make it worth a look.

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