France (2014) Dir. Fred Cavayé
The French may have a reputation of producing either heavily talkative arthouse films or quirky romantic rom-coms but they are capable of making decent action/crime thrillers too. While their TV output of recent years – Spiral, Braquo, Witnesses – has bulldozed its way into our consciousness, the big screen is home to similarly gritty, high-octane police action.
Leading the way is Fred Cavayé who has already scored with his taut debut Anything For Her and the busy follow up Point Blank, and now hits us with his third outing, Mea culpa. Uniting the two leads from his first two films, the story involves ex-cop Simon (Vincent Lindon), fired for causing fatal car crash by drink driving, whose young son Theo (Max Baissette de Malglaive) is put in danger when he witnesses a murder by a vicious gang of criminals.
With the criminals, lead by a man named Milan (Velibor Topic), targeting Theo, he and his mother Alice (Nadine Labaki) are put under the care of Simon’s best friend and former police partner Frank (Gilles Lellouche). The duo reunite to hunt down Milan and his gang, resulting in the killing of Milan’s younger brother. For Milan the feud is now personal and Simon is sole target.
For a film like this, there is no real detriment if the story is purely functional when the action scenes more than compensate and Cavayé is very good at that. The prolific Olivier Marchal provided the idea for the script Cavayé and co-writer Guillaume Lemans developed, and while it is nothing original it is full of curious cavils and contrivances that one is asked to overlook in the name of escapist entertainment.
For instance, the incident Theo witnesses takes place at a bullfighting arena (I had no idea this was popular in France) which he saw while looking for the toilets. This makes Milan and his men rather stupid to execute someone in such a public place but it gets worse. After one of the men is outrun by young Theo, he returns on a motorbike with a colleague to off the kid for good. The location for this? Outside the police station!
Of course, if you’re going to perform a drive by shooting do it in the one place where your endeavour is likely to have maximum attention by the law! Amazingly they fail and Theo is once again chased through the backstreets by the biker while Frank engages his mate in a shootout solo, a good five minutes before anyone comes from inside to check out the gunshots. The kid once again proves too fast for a motorbike (!) but this time dad is on hand to save the day.
As ludicrous and implausibly daft as this all sounds, Cavayé is somehow able to turn it into spellbinding and nail-biting entertainment, through tight editing and cleverly construction of the chase sequences. They might be conceptually and logically flawed but they are good fun, which is usually the point of this type of film. If James Bond can get away with it…
With a brisk runtime of just 86 minutes, character development isn’t high on the agenda, especially for Milan and his crew. We know they are bad because they have bald heads, stubbly beards, wear black leather and burn holes in people with their stares. Other than that they might as well have killed that poor chap at the bullfight show because they were bored for all we know.
The bond between Frank and Simon is sufficiently explained through flashbacks, as is the subsequent failing of Simon’s marriage to Alice. With young Theo torn between two parents – Simon obviously being the less reliable due to his work as a security guard – tensions are fraught and Alice’s new man seems like a bit of a twerp. The fact Simon is prepared to break the law to deal with Milan is designed to illustrate his love for his son and gives us the emotional hook to support Simon in his mission.
But this film is about action and it delivers this in spades, concluding with a nerve shredding and bullet laden chase on a speeding train, a tour de force sequence of well timed brutality and adroit physicality. The punishment the men – and women – take in this film is ungodly but they keep on going, notching up more battle scars along the way, while the fatalities incurred are rather quite gruesome while gloriously entertaining.
Cavayé may still need some guidance in constructing more plausible stories but on the action front, his work can’t be faulted. The stunts and action sequences might not have Hollywood’s budget behind them but they are equally OTT but thankfully free from the head spinning frenetic quick cut editing that blights Tinsel Town action. The pacing is constant and while we are never far from another explosive shot of adrenaline and bloodshed, we are no overburdened by them and they happen for a reason.
Having both worked for Cavayé before, Vincent Lindon and Gilles Lellouche seem to know what the director wants from them while Cavayé knows how to get the best out of them. Both come across as legit and credible bad asses, Lellouche belying his previous rom-com looks while Lindon is the craggy faced veteran. They form a great team yet are both effective individually as we see, providing credible and engaging turns, alongside solid support from Nadine Labaki as Alice, and young Max Baissette de Malglaive as Theo.
If Mea culpa had been given more time to develop the characters and some of the sub plots – such as Frank’s disagreeable boss, the background of Milan’s dealings and more of Frank’s history – the flaws in the story could been easily overlooked by these fulfilling distractions. But for what we get is enough to build the impressively fun popcorn thrills and chaos around – it really is depending on how charitable one is in this situation.