It’s easy to pick holes in the plot of Le chant du loup (billed as The Wolf’s Call on Netflix), but why would you want to do that? This French-made military/technical thriller follows in the footstep of Tom Clancy to create a modern variation on the Hunt for Red October theme. It does as well as some and better than most.
The story starts us in Syria where a French special forces unit is being evacuated by submarine. Not to ruin the movie for you, my readers, but the mission succeeds after some harrowing action. It also leaves us with a mystery. During the mission, extraordinarily gifted sonar man Chanteraide (aka “Socks”) identified an unknown contact that his boat’s computers were unable to classify. Even after the mission is over, he wants to solve that mystery.
As we skip ahead some months, we find the world at the brink of war. The Russians have invaded Finnish territory and only France (!) is willing to stand up for NATO and its smaller members against the Russian bear. The plot is a variation of submarine movies that we’ve seen before. It also appears to have lifted a scene or two straight out of Top Gun. Nevertheless, it is a unique enough story to entertain. This is no Michael Bay extravaganza, but there is enough of a budget to present thrills, action, and nice footage of military hardware in action without looking cheesy.
This is a French film, so of course there is a steamy love scene right in the middle of it. Amazingly enough, this too is key to the plot as incongruous as it seemed at the time. Acting and scripting is a lot harder to judge when watching with subtitles. Overall, I’d rate this pretty highly, especially considering it’s a non-Hollywood production on a (for an action/thriller) modest budget. Just for comparison, it cost about 25% less than The Hunt for Red October did (almost 20 years ago). Sadly, it made back (per Wikipedia) under $12 million, barely half of the film’s investment. Compare that to the 10X return on Hunt, to the tune of $300 million. One hopes that the deal with Netflix goes some way to closing that gap.
The film is interesting because it is plausible fiction set amidst the conflicts of the present day. Among that fiction is the willingness of France to use her military in defense of Western Civilization. One suspects some wishful thinking coming from the writers and director. To the American audience, it is difficult to judge whether the portrayal of the French Navy rings true. I’ve read commentary that suggests that it does. Liberties seem to have been taken with rules of engagement but, as I said, it worth it to suspend one’s disbelief and go along for the ride.
Being a “present day” submarine thriller, it presents a view of technology that’s going to be a little different that World War II or 1980s Cold War. The Iranians are shown to have a stealth Frigate. I am guessing that the images of the Sahand, the first of Iran new frigate class, were not available when the movie was being made. That ship (the first of its class) entered service only at the very end on 2018. It also may have been easier to use a French ship to stand in for Irans rather than try to create a CGI model just for this film. In any case, the Iranian ship appears shockingly modern – at least to me.
Also surprising to us fans of the old-school submarine thrillers is the sound of the sonar. We’re used to that moment in every submarine movie when the hunter becomes the hunted. Someone (maybe a surface ship, maybe another submarine) turns on active sonar to locate our heroic crew. The ping of the sonar, signalling the vulnerability of the boat and its crew, is a harrowing moment. In Le chant du loup we are treated to a multi-frequency sonar sweep that sounds almost like music. The submariners call it “the wolf’s call” or “the singing of the wolf” (to translate the original name of the film more literally). Do modern sonars use a computer generated, multi-frequency signal that sounds like what we hear in the film? That I don’t know. In translating the title to be simply The Wolf’s Call, it does seem like something is being lost in the translation. There is an important theme about sound and hearing, about natural gifts and self-sacrifice, that may not be getting all the way through to me just with the subtitles.
As far as I can tell, the only reasonable opportunity to watch this here in the U.S. is on Netflix streaming, where they’ve rebranded this as a “Netflix Original.” Some content labeled as such is pretty darned bad. This one isn’t.