Directed by: Antonin Baudry || Produced by: Jerome Seydoux, Alain Attal, Hugo Selignac
Screenplay by: Antonin Baudry || Starring: Francois Civil, Omar Sy, Mathieu Kassovitz, Reda Kateb, Paula Beer, Alexis Michalik, Jean-Yves Berteloot, Damien Bonnard
Music by: Tomandandy || Cinematography: Pierre Ccottereau || Edited by: Nassim Gordji Tehrani, Saar Klein || Country: France || Language: French
Running Time: 116 minutes
One of the greatest benefits of Netflix is the streaming platform’s willingness to fund and/or distribute smaller to mid-budgeted genre films that would die a slow death in most cineplexes. These days, if your production isn’t either (1) a tentpole blockbuster with a nine-figure budget in an established franchise, (2) a chump-budget horror picture greenlit by either Blumhouse, A24, or Ghost House, or (3) a heavy-handed awards-bait drama tailored for next year’s Oscars ceremony, your film has no place in the modern theatrical ecosystem.
That’s where streaming platforms like Netflix come in. As much as we cinephiles like to think something like Overlord (2018), a $38 million production about Nazi zombies, will penetrate the mainstream and turn a box office profit, it just ain’t gonna happen. Non-English language genre films of any kind have an even harder time breaking into the mainstream, but with an Internet-based subscription model, an eclectic military-thriller about submarines, sonar experts, and acoustic warfare from a rookie-director can break through.
Directed by first-time filmmaker Antonin Baudry, The Wolf’s Call (Le Chant du Loup) is a tightly structured, self-contained war story about the rising geopolitical tensions between NATO and Russia, as well as how various Islamic extremist groups seek to antagonize that relationship. That’s the backdrop for this streamlined but slick war film, yet the story’s principal arena involves submarine warfare and the use of acoustic instruments, namely sonar, to anticipate and counterattack naval enemy forces. The Wolf’s Call (henceforth, TWC) is as much a stealth or suspense movie as it is an action movie, whereby entire sequences revolve around sneaking watercraft past dangerous obstacles or deducing the identity of unknown objects deep underwater.
One wouldn’t presume a protagonist whose “superpower” is listening to sonar audio with his super-sensitive ears could be cinematic, but Baudry and lead, Francois Civil, a charismatic, hotheaded sonar expert, somehow pull that off. In between shots of submarines drifting through the ocean depths are endless closeups of Civil concentrating with his headphones as if his life depended on it — which, in this movie, is often the case. TWC plays like a military procedural a la Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), but condensed and emphasizing naval over desert warfare; its opening and final act (2/3 of the film) revolve around underwater chess matches whose outcomes are primarily dependent on Civil’s ability to navigate his commanding officers around treacherous terrain. Amidst these delicate maneuvers, the film’s strong supporting cast provide running commentary and guide battle strategies as narrative stakes are raised.
Most satisfying of all is how TWC structures its overarching narrative around these encounters and uses Civil’s likable but not superhuman protagonist as the connecting tissue for its three-act play. Like Thomas Jane in The Mist (2007), Civil’s rational personality is an effective audience-surrogate for guiding the viewer through the intricacies of naval infrastructure and submarine jargon; I felt I knew all I needed to know about sonar acoustics and naval strategy to understand the plot within the first ten minutes of the movie’s terrific opening scene. Baudry’s screenplay wastes no time in establishing tone, tactics, and character motivations within its first act, and is so well paced and edited that even its obligatory romantic subplot is important to the overall story.
Not all is perfect with the movie, however. Aside from the film’s limited but obvious digital FX — a fake helicopter explosion here, a shoddy torpedo impact there — the movie’s visuals aren’t the most diverse and become somewhat repetitive by story’s end. That’s not to say the movie’s production values aren’t competent, nor that the movie’s naval hardware doesn’t establish an identifiable aesthetic, but the film’s limited blocking in the tightest environments imaginable (re: the interiors of a submarine) and near monochromatic blue-teal hues grow visually tiresome. I suppose this is a limitation of TWC’s specialized military diegesis, but the story fetishizes its submarine and underwater scenery to such an extent I wonder if the movie should’ve been shot in black-and-white. How’s that for a wacky visual gimmick in a Netflix release?
Top to bottom, Antonin Baudry’s directorial debut offers plenty of throwback action for fans of Tom Clancy and 1990s Hollywood thrillers like Speed (1994), The Rock (1996), Air Force One (1997), and of course, The Hunt for Red October (1990). Its focused narrative structure, streamlined direction, and realistic characters feel almost classical by today’s standards, the further we drift from the cocksure heroes and Cold War espionage of previous decades; given the transformation of today’s media environment and modern geopolitics, though, maybe genre films should embrace specialized military cinematography like The Wolf’s Call. For those interested in straightforward genre filmmaking with none of the digital excesses characteristic of contemporary theatrical blockbusters, as well as those interested in French cinema besides the dramatic stuff you’re forced to watch in film school, Baudry’s submarine adventure has much to offer. It’s an old-school action movie that’s creative enough to make audiophiles look cool on camera, and that’s nothing if not unique.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Change the language and increase the budget by a smidgen and The Wolf’s Call would feel right at home in mainstream cinemas of the 1990s. As it stands today, Antonin Baudry’s debut feature is one of the many eclectic genre-movies, foreign and domestic, that calls Netflix home. Director of photography Pierre Cottereau constructs a memorable visual style despite, or maybe because of the film’s unique scenery, cramped interiors, and stark color palette.
— However… as stylish as its blue-green environments look, the monotonous colors grow, well, monotonous after 116 minutes. The movie’s few digital FX are distracting enough to question why cheaper practical FX like miniatures or even stock footage weren’t used.
—> The Wolf’s Call, also known as Le Chant du Loup, is RECOMMENDED for those in search of blockbuster fair that uses suspense, action sequences, special FX, and military hardware to service an interesting story, rather than the other way around.
? What would’ve happened to all those civilians left outside the military bunker after the sirens warned of impending nuclear attack? Do they all just… die?