By Dave Wilson | September 2, 2011
Director: Fred Cavayé
Writers: Fred Cavayé, Guillaume Lemans
Starring: Gilles Lellouche, Roschdy Zem, Gérard Lanvin, Elena Anaya, Mireille Perrier, Claire Perot, Moussa Maaskri
Point Blank is a dark, relentless, and stylishly directed new French crime thriller that drops an innocent man into a paranoid world of kidnapping, corruption, hopelessness, and betrayal. Director Fred Cavayé seems equally inspired by the unsettling, claustrophobic world of American film noir and that rich period of French crime films in the eighties and early nineties that gave us masterworks by Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita) and Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva). Yet for all of its momentum and sheer kinetic energy, the film loses sight of the essentials–character, emotion, and motivation–far too much of the time, resulting in a film that isn’t nearly as thrilling or as suspenseful as it should be.
Samuel (Gilles Lellouche) is a nurse’s aide who works in a hospital where a wounded criminal lies unconscious after being struck by a motorcycle in a Parisian tunnel. The mysterious accident victim also has a bullet wound in his abdomen. Samuel, who hasn’t quite earned his nurse’s certificate, rushes to the man’s aid one night when someone slips in and severs his breathing tube. Samuel gets chewed out for breaking protocol, even though the man would have died without his intervention. He also unwittingly identifies himself as an easy target.
For the victim, it turns out, is one Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem), a career thief who someone wants to spring from the hospital, if only, perhaps, to finish him off. But now there’s a guard posted round the clock at Sartet’s bedside and two rival police squads circling him like vultures. No can get in or out.
That is, except Samuel, who wakes up at home, blood trickling from his scalp, after being clubbed from behind. A phone rings, he answers. His pregnant wife, Nadia (Elena Anaya), who was at home under doctor’s orders to stay off her feet, is now screaming for him on the other line. Another voice cuts in. Samuel, the insider, must nab Sartet from the hospital and deliver him to a specified location within three hours, or his wife will be killed. She’s tied up in a dark, dripping cold storage plant somewhere on the outskirts of Paris. Aren’t they always?
To give you a sense of the pacing, this is roughly the first fifteen minutes of the film. From here, the film turns into one of those taut, manic, labyrinthine films wherein our hero is left with no other choice but to behave like a criminal himself, using brute force, slipping into alleys or train tunnels, running, climbing, fighting to get to his wife, while dodging corrupt cops, rival crime gangs, and thuggish mafia types. Of course, every move implicates him even further.
Despite inexplicably losing sight of that kidnapped wife in the cold storage plant for much of the film, the narrative opens up and takes an intriguing new turn as Sartet himself, in Samuel’s custody, regains his strength and becomes an active player in the proceedings. Now the balance of power between Samuel and Sartet shifts from one moment to the next until the two are forced to enter a curious symbiotic relationship. Who is the hostage and who is the kidnapper?
Roschdy Zem is absolutely brilliant as the thief, Sartet. Zem has a weathered face and cold, piercing eyes that can break without warning into amusement, pity, menace, or fear. You can always see his mind at work, his eyes sizing up the room, a cool series of calculations urging him on. As Samuel, Gilles Lellouche is a driven, likeable everyman in a sort of Liam Neeson meets Harrison Ford kind of way, but Roschdy Zem invests Sartet with the kind of moral and emotional complexity that is usually reserved for the protagonist, effectively making Sartet the only three-dimensional character in the film.
Point Blank is slick and hyper, yet I felt strangely disconnected from much of the action. I think there are two reasons for this.
First, director Cavayé mistakes movement and momentum for suspense. For some, Point Blank may be taut and relentless, a film that never lets up. But sometimes this can be a hindrance. In fact, it can even drain the life from a thriller. Suspense comes from anticipation, too, from playing upon our worst fears.
Point Blank is more like a shot of adrenalin. There is not enough variation in tone or pacing. In fact, we’re never given enough time to get to know Samuel, so we’re missing the emotional connection we need to feel invested in his struggle. Instead of characterization or motivation, we get shorthand. The pregnant wife in the cold storage plant is really–let’s face it–a MacGuffin, rather than a fully realized character. And so we get twist after twist, but almost no respite from the frenetic chase scenes and brutal set pieces. This film desperately needs a few slower beats where Samuel weighs his options, makes a decision, or simply stops to catch his breath.
The second problem is that Cavayé is so determined to pay homage to a certain kind of crime thriller that he buries the most interesting element of his story–this tenuous, shape-shifting relationship between Samuel and Sartet–beneath a needlessly complicated and sometimes inscrutable plot, composed of plot twists and betrayals that feel arbitrary or contrived and add almost nothing to the suspense. Most of these twists and motifs–the rival police detectives, the assassination plot involving a wealthy businessman, the safe cracker, right down to that woman in the cold storage plant–have been lifted from hundreds of other crime films. In fact, this heavy-handed, referential plotting often has the opposite effect, diluting the hero’s dilemma, and distracting us from the real problem: how Samuel will free his wife and clear his name.
Despite all of this, the film really comes together in the last thirty minutes or so, finding just the right balance among these elements, reconnecting the emotional story nearly left by the wayside–man and wife–with the strains of violence and suspense Cavayé has worked so diligently to orchestrate. Here Cavayé does a fine job of taking a familiar locale, a police station, and subverting all of our associations, so that we feel the same hopeless, agonizing sense of doom as his characters.
Point Blank is not without its flaws, but it is a stylishly shot and tightly wound exercise in genre filmmaking that will grab many by the throat. Sink back and grab your armrests. Enjoy the discovery of a card-carrying badass like Roschdy Zem. And if you find yourself feeling nostalgic for La Femme Nikita or Diva—or if you’ve never had the pleasure—go ahead and drop those movies into your queue. You won’t be sorry.