Djibouti was the final French colony, thanks in part to the large Afar minority, who consistently voted to maintain ties with France. Eventually, they resorted to a full-scale insurrection against the oppressive Somali-majority government, so their concerns were justified. Regardless, just about everyone realized independence was inevitable in 1976, but militant Somali nationalists still felt compelled to take a school bus full of children hostage. Despite the dithering of bureaucrats, the rescue mission represented the birth of the French GIGN commando service. The initial hand-wringing and the eventual assault are vividly dramatized in Fred Grivois’s 15 Minutes of War, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles, following its Canadian premiere at this year’s Fantasia (under its French title).
Andre Gerval’s men are the best Paris law enforcement has to offer. They are still not the GIGN yet, but they are already used to unconventional international assignments. Ideally, they would like to do a quick recon and then take their carefully timed simultaneous shots, but they will have to wait for Paris to give the go ahead to the local Foreign Legion commander. Unfortunately, they will have to cool their heels in the hot sun while the French authorities try to negotiate with a group of terrorists that refuses to talk or budge from their ultimatum.
Of course, the local legionnaires resent the hot-shot Parisians, but Gerval gets on surprisingly well with Phillip Shafer, the unofficial CIA observer. Meanwhile, Jane Andersen, the American expat teacher tries to keep her kids calm, while putting up with the thuggish behavior of their captors.
Perversely, French cinema once again puts Hollywood to shame with a refreshingly heroic portrayal of the uniformed specialists defending their countrymen against the forces of terrorism, joining the ranks of The Assault and Special Forces. The situation is complicated, but the terrorists are still definitely the bad guys.
As Gerval, Alban Lenoir is impressively steely, but still a far cry from a Rambo caricature. Among his proto-GIGN teammates, Michaël Abiteboul creates the most distinctive persona, as Georges Campere, the fastidious gadget guy. Sebastien Lalanne, Guillaume Labbe, and David Murgia are harder to tell apart, as their scruffier colleagues, but together they develop a salty bantering camaraderie that sounds very to true to the spirit of uniformed brotherhood.
The glammed down Olga Kurylenko is also surprisingly credible and compelling as Andersen, the teacher who voluntarily puts herself in harm’s way for the sake of her kids. However, the real discovery is Kevin Layne, who is absolutely chilling as Barkhad, the ruthless, kat-addicted terrorist leader. He makes quite a sinister villain, but in no way is he cartoony. Rather, he is frighteningly real.
The bureaucratic-diplomatic rigmarole Gerval and company have to wait out will have viewers pulling their hair out in empathetic frustration. However, when the intervention finally goes down, Grivois stages a rip-roaring string of action sequences that are super-charged but still completely realistic. Frankly, we need more action movies like 15 Minutes, at this particular point in time. Enthusiastically recommended, 15 Minutes of War opens this Friday (8/2) in LA, at the Laemmle Music Hall.