The words “French” and “Action” go together like peanut butter and bacon. It’s not the most obvious combination, but it can work. There are a lot of French crime films that I need to catch up on, but they don’t all hinge on action sequences. I tried to spread it around this week but I still wound up with mostly newer stuff–sometimes that’s how it works out. Still, French cinema isn’t all about stuffy men smoking cigarettes and pining over women who wear scarves and this week, I can prove it.
Taxi (1998) dir. Gerard Pires
Taxi 2 (2000) dir. Gerard Krawczyk
La Balance (1982) dir. Bob Swaim
Le Cercle Rouge (1970) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
The Code (2002) dir. Manuel Boursinhac
Yamakasi (2001) dir. Ariel Zeitoun, Julien Seri
Taxi & Taxi 2
I haven’t seen the American remake of Taxi but I can’t imagine that it’s superior to the original that spawned three sequels in France. What makes Taxi so much fun is leading man Samy Naceri who is like a much less gruff version of Vin Diesel. He plays a macho and badass driver and gearhead with a kind heart and a fondness for sandwiches. The film is great fun whenever he’s on the screen because he exudes that cocky charisma required of roguish heroes. Marion Cotillard plays the love interest and she’s never hard to watch either. I can see why this film was successful and why the producers thought that the formula could work for an American audience–I just don’t know why they thought that swapping Naceri for Queen Latifah was a good idea. In the sequence below, a pizza delivery driver does a 360 backflip on a moped. Nice!
For the first sequel, everything about Taxi gets turned up a notch. The racist bafoon police chief is more bafoonish. The souped-up taxi is more like a cross between Kitt and the Spy Hunter car. Marion Cotillard’s sexual frustration lingers throughout the entire film with no payoff. Nearly every character from the first film makes an appearance in the sequel which makes the two movies a great double-feature. In addition to the speeding Pugeot action, Taxi 2 includes a nice parkour sequence that gives some ninjas a chance to escape by scaling buildings and doing flips. The film also gives super-hot german cop Petra a chance to kick some ass while her impotent boyfriend watches with his unloaded gun. Unfortunately there are a number of very un-PC gags in the film brought it down for me. I’m not sure that I absolutely need to see parts three and four now, but I enjoyed the heck out of the first two for the most part.
Naceri shows up again in the 2002 gangster film The Code, but he’s considerably less likable there. The film’s set up is almost legendarily generic. A hood gets out of jail and tries to go straight but he’s pulled back into the crime family for one last job that’s too big to pass up. Along the way he cheats on his faithful wife, gets his brother sucked in to a violent mess, and falls back into a routine that is headed nowhere good. The rival gangsters turn out to be much more formidable antagonists than any cops, so the majority of the film’s running time concerns a feud between gang bosses that goes exactly where it looks like it’s going to go. The film is well-acted and shot but the story is so by-the-numbers that I found it hard to sustain interest in what was going on. Just remember, crime doesn’t pay.
This early 80s cop and robber movie feels like an extended French episode of Hill Street Blues. The cops can’t get to the man who is running things in town so they put the squeeze on a low-level pimp and hustler until he cracks. I found the attitudes about pimps and prostitutes in La Balance interesting and certainly different from what you would see in most American films, but beyond that it was a pretty typical 80s cop story. The movie’s few action scenes are shot very matter-of-factly which gives the climactic chase and shootout some urgency, but the police procedural stretches of the film got a little tedious. Once again, crime doesn’t pay and being a rat doesn’t pay either.
Le Cercle Rouge
It’s no wonder this is a film in the Criterion collection. From the first frames it just oozes class. You know how American heist movies almost always have scenes designed to keep the audience up to speed on every character motivation so that we don’t get lost in the plot? Yeah, well this film doesn’t do that and we never need the hand-holding. A man is released from prison and he doesn’t even want to take the snapshots of a beautiful woman with him. Is she the reason he was in jail? Does he know where she is now? We don’t need a scene where he explains to someone else “yeah, these are photos of my girlfriend who ratted me out and put me in jail and I hate her” because we can see what’s going on in his head right there on the screen. In fact the long silent stretches of the film are what make it so great. The heist itself is completely free of dialog because the burglars are trying to avoid a recording device–but that scene perfectly reflects the attitude of the whole film. There’s no need to talk to the audience if you can show them clearly what is going on and why people are making the choices they are making.
As the first parkour-centric feature, Yamakasi is worth a look. Though the film that holds the stunts together is flimsy, at least it’s lighthearted and it gives the Yamakasi crew excuses to run up the sides of buildings. I imagine that if you clipped the parkour sequences out of this film you’d have something that plays like a Lifetime TV movie of the week. The good-natured gang of freerunners and building scalers gets caught up in a race to steal enough loot to fence to buy a kid a transplant heart. Of course they are going to save the kid and make good on their promises and of course their friend the cop is eventually going to help out, but the story isn’t really what’s driving this film. That’s why it unfortunately dies once the guys have amassed enough stolen art, jewels, and cash to meet their goal. Once they stop jumping off of rooftops and walking up walls, there’s not much reason for the film to exist. Replace the transplant kid with a bomb they have to find and defuse and you’d have the same set up without the need for 20 minutes of wrap up at the end. On second thought, maybe Yamakasi isn’t really the best investment of 90 minutes–rent a parkour documentary instead.
Other Movie Weeks in 2011:
Childhood Fascination Week
Australian Rules Week
Black History Week
Recent Westerns Week
Non-Godzilla Kaiju Week
Woody Allen Week
Secret Agent Week
Asian Action Week