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Nashville Scene This Gun for Hire

The return of "Le Samourai"

By Jim Ridley and Noel Murray

It may have been the Summer of Love, but 1967 has gone down in film history as the year of the postmodern gangster movie. It was the year John Boorman's brilliant, brutal Point Blank shattered its narrative like a jackboot stomping a weakling's glasses. It was the year Faye Dunaway's Bonnie and Warren Beatty's Clyde got gunned to pieces because they bought into their own outlaw mythology. And it was the year a stone-cold hit man adjusted his wide-brimmed fedora, walked into a crowded Parisian nightclub, and emptied his pistol into the owner. Why did you come here, the victim asks. "To kill you," the hit man replies. There is no emotion in his voice and none expected. This is just business. Bam. Bam. Bam.

Like Point Blank and Bonnie & Clyde, Le Samourai is impossible to imagine without the influence of six decades of crime movies. It's the work of a French director, Jean-Pierre Mel-ville, who grew up feasting on American pulp thrillers and glossy Hollywood dramas, which fueled his themes of loyalty, betrayal, and codes of honor and conduct among the criminal classes. And yet it's an amazing, one-of-a-kind movie--a slow, fanciful, ruminative character study seething with thuggish cool--that has led to some of the most over-the-top action movies of recent years.

If you go expecting the slam-bang bloodshed of the movies it inspired--chiefly Reservoir Dogs and The Killer--you'll probably fall asleep. (This influence is probably what got the movie rereleased.) But if you love movies that change the way you see the world, that plant you in another person's consciousness for two hours, that allow you to pretend you're stalking the streets of Paris with steel-blue eyes and killer reflexes, you'll want to tell every hardcore movie nut you know about it--which I pretty much spent the weekend doing.

Le Samourai opens with a great, unsettling shot of a big empty hotel room with a solitary figure laid out on the bed, wreathed in cigarette smoke. Using a famous trick employed by Hitchcock and countless other suspense directors, the camera simultaneously pulls backward and zooms forward, creating a disorienting warp in perspective--but cinematographer Henri Decae (The 400 Blows) staggers the zoom effect, making the room seem to bow and bend. That's how it feels to be master assassin Jef Costello, a cold-blooded loner whose sole companion is a bullfinch that chirps at the sign of danger (a neat touch). Alain Delon, his face as pale and impassive as a Kabuki mask, plays Jef; he was cast as much for his suave, blank pretty-boy looks as for his ability to look debauched and haunted all at once.

The movie follows Jef as his latest assignment turns into a nightmare of police lineups, constant surveillance, and double-crosses that must be repaid in blood. The police press his casual lover (Nathalie Delon) to rat him out; a mysterious cabaret singer (Caty Rosier) refuses to finger him, which is suspicious in itself. It dawns on him, and on us, that he has fulfilled his last contract. Nevertheless, he accepts one more job--one whose target, he learns, is much closer to home. He refuses to back out. He has, after all, accepted the money.

Jean-Pierre Melville (n Grumbach; he adopted the name of his favorite author) was a flamboyant tough guy and lifelong movie buff who fought in the French Resistance during World War II. His wartime experiences, like Samuel Fuller's, shaped a view of the world best expressed in tough, gut-level crime-dramas. (His fast, economical methods of working were an inspiration to the young Truffaut and Godard, the latter of whom cast the veteran director in a great cameo in Breathless.) Melville even dressed the part. He favored wide-belted Sam Spade trench coats, and he adopted a brash Stetson as his trademark.

It is no surprise, then, that he would understand the allure of gangster chic so well. His 1955 noir drama Bob le Flambeur unfolds in a kid's dress-up dream of a criminal underworld, and Melville loses himself so completely in its ambience that he doesn't even fool with the rat-a-tat requirements of action filmmaking. He's happy just to tag along with his fatalistic hero, savoring the streets and the feeling of owning them.

Le Samourai, made 12 years later, is even more refined. Every movement has the heaviness of ritual. Crime is a formalized repetition of behavior: Jef performs every criminal act in the movie at least twice, in exactly the same methodical way, whether it's stealing a car with a ring of skeleton keys or acquiring a new set of plates. When Jef dons his fedora before leaving for a hit, he rubs his thumb along the brim as if he were crossing himself--a gunslinger's rite of preparation. This isn't just a killer's natural caution, though; it's an acknowledgment of how much we movie junkies crave the conventions of gangster flicks. So potent is the gangster iconography that Melville sometimes obscures Jef's face completely. He knows the cocked hat and trench coat have power all by themselves.

Just business Alain Delon as Jef Costello in Le Samourai


Delon looks so perfect and moves with such stealth that the director follows him as if in a wish-fulfillment reverie. If you took out every scene of Jef stalking the city streets, the movie would be an hour shorter. But it wouldn't have its bizarre, unique mood of moving constantly without going anywhere, the mood captured in the very first shot. And it wouldn't have its overwhelming sense of place. We're always aware of city life at its different levels, in every sense of the word. The action takes place in apartments, on the street, and underground, sometimes simultaneously, and there's a strong sense of criminals, civilians, and police coexisting uneasily in the same world. As lit by Decae, that world is all hard, matte-finish surfaces, as cold and grayish-blue as gunmetal. Even the glass interior of the nightclub seems confining--part prism, part prison.

There are plenty of cool assassin movies, many of them influenced by this one. But Le Samourai imagines more vividly than any other what it would be like to stand in a killer's shoes--not just during bursts of violence, but throughout every agonizing second of existential dread, insecurity, and elation. The movie's glacial pace makes you feel the weight of Jef's every small decision--which is appropriate, since his life rides on every one. It's easy to see why generations of movie fanatics, from the Nouvelle Vogue to Martin Scorsese to John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, fell in love with the icy glamour of Jean-Pierre Melville's movie-fed fantasies of underworld life. To see Le Samourai on a big screen is to remember pointing toy guns as a kid and reenacting scenes from the late show--only with Melville's adult awareness that the stuff of cinematic fantasy draws real blood.--Jim Ridley

Breaking wind

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer makes the kind of movies that are referred to as thrill rides, and they are--the kind you find at a shopworn parking-lot carnival, where grizzled fugitives stand prepared to blow town if the Tilt-A-Whirl pitches Aunt Marge into the next county. Con Air is the latest excursion into BruckheimerLand, the muy-macho theme park where all women are potential rape victims, gays are too worthless to beat up, and the villains score laughs with racist wisecracks about Affirmative Action and Ebonics. But hey, they're villains.

Actually, in this high-concept popcorn picture, even the heroes are villains--or more accurately, they're criminals, shackled aboard a top-security prison-transport flight. Sharing the ride is a paroled ex-soldier, Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), en route to see his wife and the daughter he's never met. When hardened lifers seize control of the plane, Poe must battle his fellow inmates, contact the authorities, and still deliver a stuffed bunny on time for his daughter's birthday.

Less bruising and more fun (for awhile) than last year's blockheaded The Rock, Con Air is essentially an airborne version of the much better The Dirty Dozen, right down to the demographically chosen passenger list. I could've done without the serial rapist Johnny 23 (a fearsome Danny Trejo), whose only purpose is to menace Rachel Ticotin's female guard--but without him there's no reason for her to be on the flight, since women in BruckheimerLand are either arm candy or victims. What's more, a tea party between a little girl and a serial killer is a sick tease even by the movie's nihilistic standards.

On the plus side, John Malkovich's arch mastermind and his scurvy gang of cutthroats, including Ving Rhames and M.C. Gainey, get the snarkiest lines in Scott Rosenberg's script, and they pop every zinger home. As a Lecter-like mass murderer, the great Steve Buscemi doesn't get much to say, but his one-sentence commentary on Lynyrd Skynyrd gets the movie's biggest laugh, and his zonked calm shows the power of shrewd underplaying. As for the heroes, Cage essentially does a steroidal H.I. McDonough, John Cusack has some droll moments as a U.S. marshal, and Monica Potter is appealing beyond the call of duty in her few scenes as Cage's wife.

Just as the movie starts to work up some steam, the filmmakers crap out with a dull desert shoot-out and a standard-issue explosionfest on the Las Vegas Strip, edited (like the rest of the movie) into an implausible, incoherent frenzy of establishing shots, poorly matched special effects, and stuff blowing up God knows where. Director Simon West, another faceless drudge in Bruckheimer's army, employs The Rock's principle of montage: count to one and cut. If you've seen everything out there and you still crave a dumb big-budget action movie, this'll suffice until a good one comes along. Me, I think I'll rent the 1974 Burt Reynolds vehicle The Longest Yard--an anti-authoritarian prison comedy ballsy enough to blow Con Air away.--Jim Ridley

Animal abuse

I've always found something very sad about domesticated animals. When a pet gets out into the open air, its first instinct is usually to trot off. Left alone, they often forget themselves and occasionally get lost. That doesn't bother me. What gets me is when they come back, or rather why they come back. Is it because of some emotional attachment to the master? Because they know where the easy food is? Or do they return to their homes merely out of habit, because it's the only life they can imagine? None of these prospects, not even the alleged bond, appeals to me. Pets are charming and comforting, but contemplating a beast with a confused nature--torn between freedom and routine--is hardly pleasant.

Caroline Thompson's film Buddy is about a woman who believed in the absolute domestication of animals. The story is mostly true, based on the life of New York socialite Gertrude Linz, who kept an incredible menagerie on her sprawling estate--birds, horses, show dogs, and a handful of chimpanzees. The chimps were her special project, and Linz felt that if apes were treated as human children, they would grow up with intelligence and nobility.

Rene Russo plays Gertrude Linz, in a winning and tricky performance. She plays Linz as both ebullient and slightly crazed, but ultimately determined, especially when she takes on an impossible task--raising a gorilla from infancy to adulthood. Linz names the great ape Buddy and is initially successful at forging a connection and training the animal to behave politely and helpfully. Buddy, though, can't be restrained forever, and it's not long before he starts losing touch with his affection for Linz and begins feeling the urge to run wild.

It's easy to want to like Buddy. Thompson, who wrote the script as well as directed, has her finger on a fascinating dilemma--the difficulty in maintaining a communication with another species. She backs up her story with painfully sad images. Buddy (played by a man in a gorilla suit, with facial animatronics by Jim Henson's Creature Shop) dances alone in his cage with Getrude's robe in his hands; Buddy, in butler's duds, drops a deviled egg from a tray he's struggling to carry; Buddy sits in one velvet chair after another, searching for one that he can settle into comfortably. These are memorable, heartbreaking moments.

Unfortunately, Buddy's tone is all wrong. Thompson tries to balance the fanciful and the sober--and to tell a true story to boot--and the whole rickety thing collapses. By rigidly adhering to the facts of Linz's own memoir, Thompson cuts herself off from plot developments that could've strengthened her tale. What is Linz's relationship with her impossibly understanding husband (played by Robbie Coltrane)? Why does she insist on projecting imagined personalities onto her pets? Thompson also raises the "yeah, right" quotient every time she shows her apes sitting down to dinner at a table like normal humans. Any realism in these scenes is quickly diluted by zaniness.

The larger problem, though, is that Buddy is ostensibly a children's movie. This is a depressing and often scary story, about a serious theme. To gear the film toward kids is a gross miscalculation, one that betrays both the story and its young audience. More than one child at the screening I saw left visibly upset by Buddy's sudden, melancholy rages. And as a adult, I was put off by the film's slapsticky elements. Every few minutes, there are annoying madcap antics by the chimps--as they wear clothes and roller skate and generally undercut the very animal dignity that the film tries so hard to build. It's as though Thompson is ignoring her own lesson--that the line between appreciating animals and exploiting them is tragically thin.--Noel Murray







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