Monday, 25 July 2011

Empire of the Wolves; A reflection on how Jean Reno can only do so much

When I were but a lad in Yorkshire, slaving down the pits to dig up the money that Keynes had suggested be buried down there so as to revive the economy, I went to the local fleapit and saw a truly leotarderrific movie called Best Defence. It was so braintwistingly bad that even in the 1980s, before focus groups had really been invented, they realised that it would be folly on a cosmic scale to release it in its finished form. So they shot a bunch of extra, completely disconnected material with Eddie Murphy in it - this was long ago, when adding Eddie Murphy to a movie still seemed like a good idea - and released a film which succeeded in failing twice in a single movie-length.

Easily the weirdest bit of it was that while it ostensibly starred Dudley Moore AND Eddie Murphy, they were never on screen together, and even at a very young age I could sort of tell that they'd made one movie and then spliced another, even worse, one into it. It was all so incredibly terrible  that I can remember whole chunks of it even now, and I use the word chunks because puke also has chunks in it.

Which brings me to Empire of the Wolves. While I was watching it, I decided that they'd started out with a stupid movie about a woman who had amnesia and turned out to be a drug smuggling assassin, before realising that it was too utterly insane even for French audiences. And then - I assumed - they'd cast around for a way to save it from itself and seized on the notion that if only they could borrow Jean Reno for a long weekend, they could sling an extra narrative in which he played a bent cop trying to solve a bunch of murders which were loosely connected to the hallucinations crazy amnesia chick was having. I reached this conclusion as I noticed that Jean Reno (who was on the poster for the movie and was literally the only reason I bothered buying it) was almost never in shot with anyone else in the whole damn movie, and especially not with amnesia chick.

It turns out, when I go looking it up on the internet, that there's an underlying novel by the dependably bonkers (imagine Dan Brown, but with something approaching writing talent, and French, and depressingly nuts) Jean-Paul Grangé. Suddenly my cunning hypothesis was set at naught. Mind you, it did explain why Reno was playing yet another variation on the shifty French cop which he used in Crimson Rivers. (also a Grangé adaptation) Grangé's go-to fix for the police is to have one middle-aged shady cop and one naive innocent to play him off. Since he's, you know, driven by demons of realism, he's inclined to top his dodgy cops at the end of each book. This isn't as realistic as he thinks it is. If the French police had just the one dodgy cop who was super-intuitive and dangerous, and he kept running into weird esoteric cases, that would actually be LESS crazy than the idea that the French police force had more than one such dodgy cop and one of them was always available for the weird stuff despite the fact that they kept getting killed at the end of the cases. Dodgy cops aren't stupid. Necessarily.

Anyhow, it was a salutory lesson to me. Jean Reno has been the saving grace in many a terrible movie (I've mentioned in the past his wonderful moment with Ian McKellen in the Da Vinci Code, and there's also his role as the only half way interesting person in the Godzilla remake), and the star in the occasional work of Bessonian genius (no matter what you may think of Leon's gender politics, Reno is wonderful in it). But Empire of the Wolves hammered home to me that he's no more a guarantee of quality than Michael Caine is.

Empire of the Wolves is well shot, occasionally well lit, and utterly incoherent. I suspect that in doing all that, it's depressingly faithful to the underlying book. But there's enough crap in there for about four movies, or better yet, no movie. Crazy Amnesia Chick has amnesia because she was brainwashed by the French counter-terror police, which you'd think would be enough plot for a whole movie. But no, that would be stoopid. It turns out that the French counter-terror police chose as their random subject for the experiment a woman who was trained from childhood by a Turkish secret society to be an assassin and drug smuggler. Well, I mean, you don't even ask what the odds are of something like that. You've already had to suspend disbelief on a positively Brunelian scale to get your head round the first dumb plot, so the notion that the Turkish underworld has secret societies with chicks ought to just slide right on down your dramatically enlarged gullet of gullibility. But that's not all; they snatched her after she betrayed the secret society. It's literally impossible, at this point, to figure out how many different kinds of on the run she is (which is why I liked the fact that the IMDB goof list for the movie begins with noticing that her bra fastening shifts from one scene to the next).

Anyhow, for reasons too made-up to recount, the secret society is murdering the living daylights out of anyone who looks vaguely like amnesia chick used to look (because, and I can't believe I forgot this till now, she's also had plastic surgery as part of her running away from the Turkish mob), and Jean Reno is investigating those murders. In any kind of real world, he'd have more chance of tripping over a working time machine made out of liquorice allsorts than of figuring out the connections holding the plot together, but hey, it's the movies. So we got hallucinations of werwolves (or something!), amnesia, Turkish secret societies, plastic surgery, ritual serial killing, drug smuggling, people trafficking... God himself would shrug and head off to the golf course. What chance does Jean Reno have?

None. He just can't save it. Jean's on kind of a roll with me at the moment. I watched him in Armored a while back - I honestly couldn't tell you what he does in the movie, and I think that was because he wanted to be somewhere else almost as much as I did. I watched him last week in 22 Bullets, another French policier adapted from a novel, and while it was OK, it clearly wasn't that year's great policier. Next up in the rotation is Crimson Rivers 2, and I bet that's going to suck like a Dyson vaccuum cleaner.

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