Monday, May 28, 2012

Jump Cuts: Francophone Action Flicks Edition

In my review of Lockout last month, I touched upon the prolific career of director Luc Besson, who started off in the vanguard of France's "Cinema du Look" movement of the 1980s with personal, lyrical films like Subway and The Big Blue. But by beginning of the 21st century, Besson started to limit himself to writing and producing the films of other directors, introducing several of them to the American film industry. By steadying his protégés - most of them fellow Frenchmen - during their first steps in Hollywood studio system, Besson established a new identity as the kingpin of slick, slightly off-brand action films with belt-tightening budgets (at least by major studio standards).

Besson's lineage extends to now-established helmers like Louis Leterrier (
The Transporter, Clash of the Titans), Pierre Morel (Taken), and the impossibly named Olivier Megaton (Colombiana) who have followed their mentor's path toward assimilation. Indeed, there's a Jump Cuts to be written solely on the Besson family tree. Yet Besson's preeminence - at least in North American minds - as a purveyor of Eurotrashy thrills often overshadows an entirely different set of Gallic filmmakers with action chops. As a handful of recent films has proven, there are plenty of foreigners more interested in importing pieces of the basic Hollywood thriller template to reassemble it on their own terms and on their own turf.

After winning an Oscar last year for directing The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius is arguably as much of a known quantity as Besson, but that's quite the leap for a director who was best known for his glossy parodies of 1960s spy films.
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) takes its aesthetic and narrative cues from every James Bond movie starring Sean Connery, and infuses them with the comic sensibilities of Blake Edwards and Mel Brooks. Starring Jean Dujardin as a suave yet block-headed secret agent, Cairo is an impish satire of the golden age of espionage, frankly depicting the casual misogyny, racism, and ethnocentrism embedded within the Bond fantasy. Dujardin leaves few people unoffended whilst investigating the disappearance of a fellow OSS agent in Egypt, but remains blithely unaware of the deadly consequences, constantly arching his eyebrow and grinning like a fool.

Hazanavicius, like Besson, is clearly an Anglophile, but a much more skeptical one. This is clear from
Cairo, Nest of Spies and its sequel OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009), which doubles down on the wackiness with Dujardin and his sexy Mossad counterpart Louise Monot hunting for exiled Nazis in South America, and foiling their harebrained plan to launch a new Reich in the jungle. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as the film drags the characters all over Brazil in search of their Adolf Eichmann-inspired quarry. As a result, Rio lacks focus, and though the jokes in Cairo are typically of the hit-and-miss variety, Hazanavicius' humor just feels forced the second time around. At least Dujardin's smarmy performance is still spot-on: he's a magnificently sad clown, and watching him struggle with the constant comeuppance of his chauvinistic worldview enlivens both films.

Whereas the
OSS movies are lighthearted riffs on the unflappable action hero, Point Blank (2010) is a gripping portrait of an ordinary man dragged into a life-or-death situation. While treating a man (Roschdy Zem) last seen fleeing from a botched robbery, student nurse Samuel Pierret (Gilles Lellouche) is visited by gangsters who kidnap his very pregnant wife Nadia (The Skin I Live In's Elena Anaya) to coerce him into springing their colleague from the hospital. But the situation is much more complex than Samuel initially assumes, involving the murder of a prominent businessman and a web of institutional corruption. The film packs a lot of twists and turns into a brisk 84 minutes and constantly keeps Samuel on the run from criminals and cops alike, not knowing exactly whom he can trust. Point Blank could use a little more room for its plot to breathe, but I think that would diminish the effect of the movie's breakneck pacing: unlike a lot of action films with time-sensitive stakes (a la Neveldine/Taylor's Crank films), Point Blank avoids cartoonish contrivances in its refreshing back-to-basics take on the "running scared" subgenre of thrillers.

The Congolese action picture
Viva Riva! (2010) imports its Gallic cred by way of Belgium, but it owes the most of all these films to Besson's American-influenced style with its unabashed nihilism. When Riva (Pashta Bay) arrives in fuel-scarce Kinshasa with a bounty of smuggled gasoline, he triumphantly bangs his way through the city's clubs and brothels, seemingly unconcerned by the Angolan thugs who are hot on his trail. Riva's poor judgment continues when he pursues Nora (Manie Malone), a local gangster's moll, adding to his list of enemies. But the film overcomes the empty sleaze of its Skinemax-inspired first half by methodically backing Riva up against the wall, orchestrating an explosive final confrontation set in motion by all that hanky-panky. Director Djo Munga also captures the exuberant spirit of Kinshasa while finding ways to comment on the economic and cultural divides within the region: Riva mostly speaks Lingala, the city's vernacular, but the violent Angolan crime lord César (Hoji Fortuna) always speaks a refined French that matches his impeccably-tailored suits. Doing his Continental colleagues one better, Munga successfully locates the sweet spot between international appeal and domestic verisimilitude.

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