A needlessly dull toast to the Inuits

March 06, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Just what we needed most of all: an Eskimo "King Lear."

That's "Shadow of the Wolf," a large, quite absurd picture hailing from the land north of Buffalo, N.Y. that has invaded local theaters.

The $31-million Canadian production, reportedly the most expensive movie made in that country, is at once spectacularly exotic and spectacularly mundane. Conceived, evidently, as some sort of tribute to the hearty Inuit people of the frozen north who eke out a surprisingly comfortable existence from a terrain so hostile it could be Martian, the movie nevertheless founders at the level of respect for the very souls it seeks to honor. It gleefully uses non-native performers in key roles, often to grotesque effect, and, perhaps worse, it imposes Western melodramatic forms of the cheesiest nature upon their lives, again to grotesque effect.

In other ways, it reeks of hypocrisy. It begins with a sanctimonious disavowal of having harmed animals in its making and then, within seconds, is showing us an Inuit prince cutting the heart out of a majestic polar bear with a knife. OK, so . . . the bear was "acting." You wouldn't know it from what you see on screen. That sure looked like a dead bear to me, and that sure was a lot of blood spilled in the snow.

And do we really need . . . Lou Diamond Phillips as a hot-headed young Inuit, particularly when so many brilliant native American or native North American actors have emerged in recent years, ** like the great Wes Studi in "Last of the Mohicans." Do we need the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune as his father, the village Shaman? (Who was Lou's mother, Betty Grable?) I know we don't need Jennifer Tilly as Lou's bride. Really, should a person called Jennifer be allowed to appear in a movie about Indians?

The movie, visually spectacular as it is, is long on standard-issue ordeal photography. People are always grappling with physical ordeals,which allows director Jacques Dorfmann to indulge in a lot of close-ups of flaring nostrils and burning eyes, while the soundtrack fills up with grunts and oofs. The same vocabulary of cliche is deployed whether the ordeal is childbirth or whale hunting. Makes no difference to Dorfmann.

Set in 1935, the story revolves around problems of succession. The old Shaman Kroomak tries desperately to find a balance with the coming white men, while his fiery son hates him for it, ultimately kills a trader, and heads off alone with his fiancee. Those whacky kids! Setting up a household is a lot of trouble without a shower. Agaguk and Igiyook simply don't get any pot holders or fondue sets! And when Mr. Wolf, their next door neighbor, comes a-calling, you should see the fur fly.

Meanwhile, a Mountie (Donald Sutherland, on vacation from Volvo) comes looking for the killer of the white man, and ultimately Kroomak settles his hash. Then more Mounties come in what the screenplay calls "a big silver bird." Really. In fact, the screenplay has a lot of trouble finding an approximation for native tongue: it goofily veers between Shakespearean English and crass "nativisms" like "big silver bird."

The movie boasts one spectacular sequence, a whale hunt, with young Agaguk as the guy on the No. 1 harpoon.

Haven't seen the man vs. fish thing done so spectacularly and convincingly in years. It's "Jaws" in fur.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Shadow of the Wolf"

Starring Lou Diamond Phillips, Toshiro Mifune and Jennifer Tilly.

Directed by Jacques Dorfmann.

Released by Triumph.

Rated PG-13.

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