Starring: Gilles Lellouche, Roschdy Zem, Gérard Lanvin, Elena Anaya, Mireille Perrier, Claire Perot
Rating: Unrated, with R-level profanity and violence
This one hits the ground running and never lets up.
Seriously, I’ve not seen this much sprinting since 1998’s equally breathless “Run, Lola, Run.”
Director/co-writer Fred Cavayé’s “Point Blank” is a slick thriller in the classic Hitchcock mold, with an innocent protagonist pursued by bad guys, good guys and several others in between. The set-up is compelling, the execution riveting.
And brief. Cavayé’s film is an economical 84 minutes, and he doesn’t waste a second. Rarely have I seen a filmmaker so adept at getting on the stage, orchestrating a gripping show and then getting off again. Take the bow, fade to black; everybody’s happy.
I can think of several American directors whose bloated vanity projects would benefit from this sort of discipline.
French thrillers have been getting better lately. I’ve long admired the work of Luc Besson, although his efforts — “The Professional,” “La Femme Nikita” and the “Transporter” series — are more slick fantasy than gritty noir. But director Guillaume Canet’s 2006 adaptation of American novelist Harlan Coben’s “Tell No One” really made us sit up and take notice; it was one of that year’s superior films.
“Point Blank” belongs in its company.
(I should mention, in passing, that this film has no relation to the 1967 Lee Marvin thriller of the same title.)
The story begins aggressively, as a wounded man — Roschdy Zem, as Sartet — is pursued by two gun-toting thugs with murder on their minds. One ghastly traffic accident later, Sartet is en route to the hospital.
This is perhaps the film’s most glaring flaw, since Cavayé seriously oversells this collision; ain’t no way anybody could have survived such an impact. But we’ll let that go.
Sartet winds up on a ward staffed by trainee nurse Samuel Pierret (Gilles Lellouche, who had a supporting role in “Tell No One”). Samuel is happily married to the very pregnant Nadia (Elena Anaya), who has been cautioned to stay calm — and preferably prone — during her final six weeks, lest she risk losing the baby.
Samuel and Nadia clearly adore each other, and their relationship is deftly sketched by Cavayé and co-scripter Guillaume Lemans.
Back at work, Samuel spots somebody suspicious at Sartet’s bedside. The intruder gets away; Samuel notices that Sartet’s oxygen tube has been cut. Thanks to the trainee nurse’s quick thinking, the patient is saved. The police are summoned; the case falls to Commander Fabre (Mireille Perrier) and her squad. She assigns an officer to guard the still unconscious Sartet.
Remember this: No good deed goes unpunished.
Back at home, Samuel is barely able to tell Nadia that he was a hero, when he’s hit over the head and knocked out. He regains consciousness to the insistent buzz of a phone; Nadia is gone. Samuel answers the phone, finds himself talking briefly to his wife — who’s obviously terrified — and then listens as an angry male voice orders him to get Sartet out of the hospital … or else.
Samuel objects, then flinches after hearing gunfire from the phone receiver. The next one, he’s warned, will kill his wife.
The police, meanwhile, are investigating the recent murder of Francis Meyer, a high-profile tycoon killed in his office. This plum case has been assigned to a squad headed by Commander Werner (Gérard Lanvin), much to the ongoing annoyance of Fabre and her people. There’s little love lost between Werner and Fabre — or between the members of their respective squads — and Fabre clearly believes that she gets the lower-profile cases because of her gender.
Sartet’s identity comes up hot — he has a record — so Fabre and her squad head back to the hospital … just as the desperate Samuel tries to smuggle the patient out. Needless to say, Samuel hasn’t a head for such a task; things quickly go awry. And then get worse. And then get even worse, because somehow Sartet is involved in Meyer’s murder, which means that Samuel — who appears to be helping this criminal — is suspected, as well.
Now he’s also being pursued by Werner’s squad. Not to mention the two thugs who were trying to kill Sartet in the first place.
Granted, this plot is stitched together via contrivance, coincidence and eyebrow-raising improbability … but you won’t care. Cavayé and editor Benjamin Weill move things along so quickly that we’ve no time for questions; more crucially, Lellouche anchors this story with his wholly sympathetic performance as a desperate man who’ll do anything to save his wife.
We’re firmly in Samuel’s corner from the beginning, and Lellouche navigates the fine balance between desperation and dwindling moral clarity. Eventually, he needs to trust somebody, and that choice proves unexpected; it also fuels the story’s most intriguing relationship.
And Samuel is no superhero. Yes, he survives a few implausible jumps, but for the most part he’s just an ordinary guy thrust into a horrific situation, doing his best to survive and somehow rescue his wife.
The tension in that corner is equally grim. We’re fully aware of Nadia’s imperiled pregnancy, and Anaya projects appropriate terror and anxiety each time we’re granted a glimpse of the imprisoned woman.
Zem and Lanvin are two sides of the same coin: both stoic, guarded individuals with something to hide. Neither character is granted much back-story, but both actors convey reasonable depth with flinty scowls and minimal dialogue.
Perrier, a longtime stage and screen veteran, deftly communicates her character’s integrity and investigative skills; Fabre clearly is a talented investigator in the mold of Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison, from the “Prime Suspect” series. We sense that Fabre is the cop most likely to trust and help Samuel … but, on the other hand, it’s difficult to be sure. This story is laden with red herrings and double-crosses.
Claire Perot also stands out as Susini, one of Fabre’s detectives: somebody else to watch.
Cavayé’s film is laden with action sequences, although Samuel’s frantic flight through a metro stop is a highlight: every bit as charged and superbly paced as Warren Beatty’s similar footrace toward the end of 1971’s “Dollars.” This metro sequence, along with many others, gets additional juice from Klaus Badelt’s throbbing, tension-laden score.
In a word, “Point Blank” is breathtaking. It’s an absorbing follow-up to Cavayé’s 2008 thriller, “Anything for Her” — remade last year as the Russell Crowe vehicle, “The Next Three Days” — and I can’t wait to see what this French filmmaker uncorks next.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com