Sunday, December 02, 2012

IFWES ’12: Armed Hands

There is not a lot of love lost between NATO and some Serbians.  An elite Marseilles police captain understands this only too well.  A group of Serbian gangsters has hijacked a shipment of the military organization’s arms, leading to a wave of violent hold-ups.  As it turns out, the Serb network also smuggles drugs, forcing the captain to make an uneasy alliance with the Parisian vice cop daughter he never took the time to know.  It is a dangerous game for all involved in Pierre Jolivet’s Armed Hands (trailer here), which screened as part of the 2012 In French with English Subtitles Film Festival, now underway in New York.

Captain Lucas Skali is a perfect fit for festival special guest Roschdy Zem.  Yes, he has played many diverse characters throughout his career, but he truly excels in hardnosed roles, such as those he played in Point Blank, 36th Precinct, Paris By Night, and even Anne Fontaine’s comparatively breezy Girl from Monaco.  Skali is not a superman nor is he always very sympathetic, but he is all business, so do not trifle with him.

Getting wind of the Serbian operation, Skali almost loses an informant when a set-up buy goes down badly.  Oh well, eggs will break when you’re making omelets.  Hot on the trail, they follow the gang to Paris, where his grown daughter Maya Dervin works for the corrupt Julien Bass.  The extent of Bass’s graft is not immediately apparent, but he seems to be at the center of a number of dodgy deals.  In fact, one of the more intriguing aspects of Armed is the way it depicts a sort of twilight economy shared by both the vice cops and the criminals they pursue.  Naturally, Skali and Dervin find themselves working different ends of the same case.  It is a serendipitous situation Skali tries to make the least of.

Without question, Jolivet is more interested in the procedural side of “policiers,” rather than shoot-out spectacles.  Frankly, Armed is somewhat reminiscent of 1970’s films, not in terms of superficial style, but for its jaded, anti-heroic vibe.  While not as chocked full of attitude as Paris by Night, it is decidedly moody all the same.

Again, that plays to Zem’s strengths.  Appropriately world-weary yet ruthless, Zem commands the screen as Skali.  Leïla Bekhti is also quite credible as Dervin, but her character’s inclination towards self-pity often feels a bit off.  Is she her father’s daughter or what?  Still, Marc Lavoine (excellent in Tony Gatlif’s Korkoro) is ambiguously sleazy in a rather effective way as Bass.

Armed is the sort of cerebral, detail-rich crime drama genre fans will relish digging into.  Given the commercial subject matter and Zem’s steadily increasing American art-house stardom, it should be a cinch for extensive festival play.  Recommended for connoisseurs of French cinema and those who appreciate intricate, multi-character procedurals, Armed Hands should have international legs.  It did not disappoint patrons when it screened at this year’s In French with English Subtitles Film Festival, which concludes today (12/2) with another full day of screenings.