Sunday, September 01, 2013

Frank Riva: Alain Delon vs. the French Connection

He is a narc of Dickensian dimensions.  After undercover detective Frank Riva dealt a staggering blow to the French Connection, he had to permanently disappear.  Dead to the world, he retired to his own island paradise.  However, he is recalled back into service to investigate a case that hits very close to home in the French television series Frank Riva, now available in a complete DVD collection from MHz Networks.

Riva was his mother’s maiden name.  The not-so ex-copper adopted it while infiltrating the Loggia mafia clan and kept it during his exile.  He was always very close to two fellow officers: Marc-Antoine Rezzoni and Xavier Unger.  The latter is now the Chief Commissioner of Police, whereas the former has just been shot, probably fatally, while leading an off-the-books operation.  Intimately aware of Rezzoni’s backstory, Riva will take over his squad to investigate the shooting.  It will get complicated quickly.

Many of Riva’s former underworld associates are quite surprised to see him.  So is his ex, Catherine Sinclair.  She also has one for him—he’s a father.  Not with her, but with one of Loggia family’s professional women, whom Riva became involved with as part of his cover.  Essentially growing up an orphan, Nina Rizzi only had Sinclair looking out for her, as a way to feel closer to her vanished father.  Unfortunately, the young woman still got mixed up with Maxime Loggia, the possessive nephew and presumptive heir of the recently deceased Loggia godfather.  As one might expect, the succession within the rebounding Loggia clan turns out to be a trickier matter that will have repercussions throughout the series—as will the circumstances surrounding Sofia Rizzi’s murder.

Series writer-creator Philippe Setbon sensitively conveys a sense of lives interrupted and time lost, which differentiates Frank Riva from the field of other gangbuster shows.  While this occasionally leads to the odd melodramatic excess (largely in during the second season), Setbon and series director Patrick Jamain balance the micro and macro stories relatively well.  Riva is a compelling noir-ish character, precisely because he always seems to have one foot out the door.

Indeed, this is a perfect TV gig for associate producer, Alain Delon.  The contrast between the older, weathered Delon and pictures of his 1960’s dashing self (circa Joy House and Le Samurai) add further poignancy.  While certainly still distinguished looking, his Clint Eastwood-like power to attract much younger women seems somewhat dubious.  Evidently, it is good to be the star and producer.

Regardless, Delon is appropriately steely in the lead.  Riva is also notable for re-teaming him with Mireille Darc (co-star of Godard’s Le Weekend) with whom he had formerly been personally and professionally associated.  After a rather overwrought introduction, her Sinclair eventually evolves in mature and convincing ways. 

Boasting quite a cinematic cast, regular Costa-Gavras collaborator Jacques Perrin goes toe-to-toe with Delon, painfully expressing many of the series’ themes of regret and the corrupting power the past.  Frankly, the series actually picks up some of its best supporting characters as it goes along, including Jimmy Esperanza, a Colombian cop assigned to Riva’s unit, played with hardboiled understatement by Eric Defosse.  G√©raldine Danon also lends the proceedings a striking corporate femme fatale presence as Swiss mob lawyer, Alberta Olivieri.

Setbon’s compulsive need to romantically match-up Riva’s subordinates stretches credulity, but one can understand the impulse.  Whether or not it is wholly believable, Frank Riva ends with a sense of family and shared experience.  Although it is a French series, it has a pronounced Italian flavor (for obvious reasons) that should widen its appeal.  Regardless, it is just great to see Delon doing his thing.  Yet the music might be nearly as cool.  Largely consisting of variations on Julien Chirol and Pierre-Luc Jamain’s title trumpet theme composed, it has a funky but lyrical sound that could have been inspired by “Time After Time” era Miles.

Tightly focused, there are no one-off cases in Riva.  Setbon usually has at least one big revelation for each episode that often drops just before the credits roll.  It pulls viewers in quickly and builds steadily, making it a good candidate for holiday weekend binge viewing.  Recommended for fans of Delon and double-crossing police dramas, Frank Riva is now available on DVD from MHz Networks.