Charly Mattei (Jean Reno) is an ageing French mafia heavy (loosely based on real-life Marseilles godfather Jacky Imbert), who has left his life of crime to spend time with his family. His ‘retirement’ comes to a sticky end when a posse of hitmen pumps 22 bullets into him in a Marseilles carpark. Standing over him mere feet away in their balaclavas, da boys blast away interminably from smokin’ large-gauge barrels. Miraculously he survives, his left hand no longer functional, but otherwise in remarkably good nick – too good. It beggars belief that anyone could have survived such a sustained point blank riddling, let alone a short while later be up and walking – stalking, in fact – in full gangster revenge mode. But believe it we must.
Unfortunately, that’s not where the cred issues end. Charly escapes assassination a second time, on this occasion with a feat of motorbike riding that would have left Valentino Rossi choking on his dust…and this with one hand outta commission. Then there is a sequence in which he climbs endlessly (and I mean endlessly – it gets tedious) through roll after roll of barbed wire laid out in the grounds of a rival mob hideaway. Why so bloody much barbed wire? It ain’t the Battle of the Somme ferchissake! The drama and tension could have been maintained with just a couple of banks of the stuff; instead, it is lost through overkill.
It’s baffling that filmmakers evidently feel compelled go over the top like this. You expect it from Hollywood action flicks, and indeed, in these and some other contexts it’s fine to stretch scenes out beyond the bounds of verisimilitude. However, Hollywood excess is a serious flaw in a movie like L’immortel that aspires to an uncompromising realism in its depiction of the gangster world and the dirty goings on within. There is graphic and particularly gruesome violence aplenty: head kicking, stabbing, bashing, shooting. All part of the genre, and a necessary part. Horrendous though some of the nasty scenes are, none are gratuitous. All may be justified as gritty realism. Why, then, spoil it all with far-fetched scenes such as those mentioned?
That’s the whinge out of the way. Now to the pluses. Most of the movie is taut with tension, as crime thrillers should be. Jean Reno is as compelling as always, and Marina Foïs gives a standout performance as Maria Goldman, a female detective forced to choose between her integrity as a police officer and pragmatic deal-making, both within the force and with the gangster heavyweights she’s hell bent on putting away. Emotionally, her role is complicated by her drive to avenge her husband’s killing at the hands of the mob. Nice departure from the standard blokey cops vs gangsters mileu. On reflection, the movie needs the female detective character – unusually, there are no fast dames in sight, and the roles of the female members of Charly’s family are minor. Yang is a bit overpowering without some yin.
There’s not a lot else to set this apart from other gangster flicks, but if you’re into the genre, as I am, that shouldn’t discourage you from checking it out. Shortcomings notwithstanding, L’immortel is a tough-arsed French take on a genre that is traditionally American in orientation. That, in itself, is refreshing.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives