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Some American moviegoers avoid French films, fearing that they will contain nothing but two hours of people sitting in cafes and talking. Those of us who really know French films, however, understand that the ones containing nothing but two hours of people sitting in cafes and talking are the good ones. The swashbuckling action films with period, mystical, or sci-fi settings are the French flicks to dread.

Brotherhood of the Wolf could be classified as dreadful, but it’s actually fun in its overripe way. Set in 18th-century France and based on a venerable Gallic legend, the movie is, nonetheless, not especially French. Director Christophe Gans previously made Crying Freeman, derived from the Japanese comic book, and he cites lurid Italian thrillers and Hong Kong action films among his principal inspirations. When Gans says “Hong Kong,” however, he clearly means not such distinctive stylists as John Woo and Wong Kar-wai but those lesser directors whose kitchen-sink tendencies gleefully overwhelm coherence.

Like many French period films, Brotherhood of the Wolf begins with an aristocrat awaiting the judgment of the revolution. Before being taken away, however, he must record the strange events he observed in southwestern France some 30 years before: The region was terrorized by a mysterious creature, and the furor was such that King Louis XV was forced to send help. First to arrive were Parisian naturalist Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his Tonto, Canadian Iroquois warrior Mani (Hawaiian-born Crying Freeman star Mark Dacascos). The two men met in New France, where they saw many wondrous and horrible things and Mani somehow learned kung fu.

Gregoire and Mani’s arrival sets the tone for the film: As they interrupt a rainy-day attack on some outsiders, boots hit the mud with explosive thuds and splashes and raindrops hit the ground like bullets. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who shot Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic, prefers natural light and deep shadows—the better to hide the true nature of the Beast, which may simply be a very large wolf but is perhaps something demonic or man-made. Yet the light is the only thing that’s unhyped in this movie, whose action and editing are as flamboyantly loony as the conspiracy that Gregoire and Mani must unravel.

While Mani broodingly investigates in the manner of an Old Hollywood ethnic sidekick, Gregoire takes time to court innocent young Marianne (Emilie Dequenne, who was utterly different as the title character in Rosetta), the sister of ominous one-armed Jean-François (Vincent Cassel). Gregoire also dallies with mystical Italian supercourtesan Sylvia (Monica Bellucci), who has secrets that are not revealed by her Frederick’s of Firenze lingerie. Sylvia’s actual identity may well be the most hilarious strand in the movie’s web of intrigues, which also includes references to witches, Satanism, the Vatican, the Knights Templar, and other conspiracy-buff favorites.

Although Gans employed two Woo veterans, fight coordinator Philip Kwok and editor David Wu, Brotherhood of the Wolf is not especially stirring as an action movie. The director’s sensibility owes more to horror films than to kung-fu adventures, as he reveals with not one but two scenes in which a living thing—one animal, one vegetable—is disemboweled to the accompaniment of overamplified squishes and splurts. Gans can’t tell a convincing story or stage an exciting fight scene, but he does have a joyous enthusiasm for all varieties of pulp.

If you’re going to see only one Cate Blanchett movie this season, make sure it isn’t Charlotte Gray. The Australian actress has much smaller parts in The Lord of the Rings and The Shipping News, but at least those films aren’t debacles. A sappy, unpersuasive, and ultimately insulting adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ World War II novel, Charlotte Gray is the worst film of Gillian Armstrong’s semibrilliant career.

Armstrong is a skillful director, and Charlotte Gray features no conspicuous technical lapses. At first, the movie suffers merely from being generic, lacking the individual touch that illuminates the filmmaker’s smaller and better efforts, The Last Days of Chez Nous, High Tide, and Starstruck. Charlotte (Blanchett) is a Scottish Londoner who’s recruited by a spy master after he spots her on a train reading Stendhal in French. “I want to be brave,” announces the ever-sententious Charlotte, and her resolve is boosted after she swoons for Peter (Rupert Penry-Jones), a British pilot who is shot down over France soon after they couple. When Charlotte parachutes into Vichy France, she plans both to win the war and to rescue her boyfriend.

From this gushy premise, things get only more and more ridiculous. Outfitted with the alias Dominique and informed that maintaining a proper French accent is crucial, Charlotte arrives in an area near Toulouse where everyone speaks English—even the Germans. Far from staying inconspicuous, Charlotte moves in with Levarde (Michael Gambon), a crusty old troublemaker who’s harboring two Jewish boys whose parents have just been arrested. (Not inclined to forgo any possible coincidence, the movie has already introduced the boys by having Charlotte land on them when she floats down from a British plane.) Levarde’s son Julien (Billy Crudup) is a cranky (and commie) Resistance fighter who distrusts Charlotte; naturally, the two pretty young partisans are going to fall in love.

Faulks’ novel reportedly has psychological nuance, but Jeremy (Mrs. Brown) Brock’s script has yielded an upscale melodrama, sort of The English Patient without flashbacks. One thing it’s assuredly not is a training film for secret agents. Both hard-bitten Julien and inexperienced, overromantic Charlotte thrust themselves into the spotlight so often that they might as well walk around wearing sweat shirts that read, respectively, “French Resistance” and “British Agent.” When they blow up a train, they hang around to further the destruction, and when German troops march into town, Julien publicly harangues them until Charlotte hushes him by—what else?—sticking her tongue down his throat. Charlotte’s subsequent confrontations with a French collaborator and a German soldier are so unintentionally laughable that they might win the film a place on the midnight-movie circuit.

Charlotte’s final stunt, however, goes beyond absurdity to sentimental vulgarity. Because it’s the big finish, it won’t be revealed here. Let’s just say that this is the sort of film in which innocent people die solely to demonstrate the nobility of the title character. Charlotte Gray may hope to attract the audience for tales of Greatest Generation daring, but its heroine is Me Generation all the way. CP