The Dead List (aka Ultimate Heist / Le premier cercle)

France (2009) Dir. Laurent Tuel

A French crime thriller with Jean Reno, complete with an enticing title and plot? Sounds like a can’t miss prospect, right? Well, the good news is that this film isn’t bad but it certainly isn’t what you might expect given the misleading marketing, which I guess is the bad news.

The story revolves around the criminal French-Armenian Malakian family, descendants of refugees who escaped the Armenian Genocide of World War I by fleeing to France. Current clan patriarch, ruthless gang leader Milo Malakian (Jean Reno) realises that his time in charge will come to an end one day and is grooming son Anton (Gaspard Ulliel) to take over the family business.

Unbeknownst to Milo, Anton wants to escape the criminal life and settle down with Elodie (Vahina Giocante), his grandmother’s nurse that he is having a secret relationship with. Anton finds some rural land to build a hotel on but not only needs money but has to keep his nose clean too. When Milo finds out about Anton’s plans which he tries to derail them, forcing Anton to join him in one last lucrative job.

Hopefully the plot summary is enough to expose the folly of giving the UK release of this film such a wildly inappropriate and teasing title as The Dead List. Even the alternate English title of Ultimate Heist is overselling this film which will surely lead to much disappointment among fans of Jean Reno, who is in his element here, and the crime genre in general.

The actual heist, whilst credibly executed and different in its construct, isn’t subject to intense planning, heated discussion and dissension among the participants in the build up, because there is none. Probably five minutes of screen time focuses on the job at hand, the remainder is the slow burning drama of Anton’s split from the family and his father’s cloaked interference.

Anton’s change of heart isn’t particular well delineated at first, seeming too comfortable to be waving his gangster credentials around for someone hating his criminal lifestyle, but there is an innocent girl involved so there is your motive. Elodie later discovers she is pregnant to expediate Anton’s need to leave the family nest, but that needs money and he is being messed around on the deal for the land he is after.

Meanwhile the police are hot on the Malakian’s trail, with chief inspector Saunier (Sami Bouajila) being an old enemy of Milo’s dating back to a shot-out in which Milo’s eldest son was killed. You can see where this is going now. Knowing Saunier is on the case leads to a some confrontation with Milo, in particular a bafflingly public attempt at vehicular homicide against the dogged cop.

Not that the story doesn’t offer the odd twist and turn here and there but they are unfortunately lacking in originality. The only effective development comes during the climactic shoot out which you can see coming but is handled rather well, given Reno the chance to come out of the acting coma he has hitherto been in during this film. Sadly the role is that undemanding for someone of Reno’s calibre, but a bad turn from him is still watchable.

Breaking the story down it is apparent that this needed to be an hour or so longer to further indulge the collapse of the father-son relationship as the focal point, exploring how and why the divergence came about and the maladroit attempts at repairing it. At 91 minutes, and with other subplots to cover, the characters aren’t given sufficient time to reveal themselves and flesh them out beyond the gangster totems that they are.

The only supporting cast member who does provide interest and creates a curious grey area between the feuding father and son is Rudy (Isaac Sharry), essentially the Joe Pesci role of the small guy who is loyal to the clan but has a habit of running his mouth and getting into trouble. Rudy is highly valued by Milo and dines off his appreciation but he is also Anton’s best friend whom he also can’t betray, placing him squarely at odds with them both.

Again, this is all ripe for explorative storytelling and deeper emotional investment but it isn’t meant to be. This is what makes this film a disappointment, more so than the promotional misrepresentation – there is a compelling drama to be made from the story but it simply isn’t realised, for whatever reason, whether it was trying to serve two masters or simply a surfeit of ideas crammed into one project.

It’s not all negative though – the cinematography is top quality, delighting us with the panoramic aerial shots of the locations, taking in rural France and port town Italy. The action scenes are sparse but Laurent Tuel throws everything into them, creating a nice sense of drama and chaos in the finale. There are some genre clichés present but Tuel successfully captures their general essence to forgive this.

Jean Reno may be the nominal draw but Gaspard Ulliel is afforded the most screen time. It takes a while to warm to Anton because of Ulliel’s pretty boy look but he wins us over in the end. Isaac Sharry is on point as Rudy, a character who could have been more important but Sharry makes the most of his scenes. Vahina Giocante is an underrated actress, noted for her indie work but this particular mainstream role sadly doesn’t push her at all.

To enjoy The Dead List one needs to ignore the title, artwork and promotional hype and be prepared for something much different that might not tick all the boxes depending on your tastes. It is like a piece of steak that is not tender enough or a glass of lemonade that loses its fizz after a few sips, you really want to enjoy it but it falls short of fully tantalising your taste buds.