Biopics tend to focus on the subject’s high and low points with little time for the real lives in between. It’s a problem of running time as films are compelled to force their stories into a two hour window, but two filmmakers in the past couple of years have foregone that route with their own biographical films running well beyond that artificial 120 minute limit. Both films feature criminals as their subject, and both come from French directors. Jean-Francois Richet’s 2008 film, Mesrine, is a two part, four hour look at notorious French gangster, Jacques Mesrine, and stars Vincent Cassel in the title role. Never one to shy away from a challenge, director Olivier Assayas released his own biopic this year. Carlos is a three part, five hour plus epic about the world’s most infamous terrorist. And yes, star Edgar Ramirez’ testosterone-fueled Carlos makes Bruce Willis’ turn in The Jackal look like a that of a pig-tailed little girl…
His birth name is Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, but the world knew him as Carlos the Jackal. Self-described revolutionary for socialist causes, Carlos’ career of terror began in the early seventies under the auspices of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP. This association culminates in an attack on an OPEC meeting and subsequent kidnapping of oil ministers, but the fallout results in a parting of ways as Carlos strikes out as a freelancer. The years that follow see his hands bloodied by bombings, assassinations, and more, but they also see Carlos and the world around him changing in unexpected ways. His convictions and causes are replaced by ego and excess, the Berlin Wall comes down, and countries that once sponsored or even supported his terrorist leanings begin to distance themselves. The man who commanded the world’s attention soon finds himself homeless. Welcome to the bloody rise and bloated fall of Carlos the Jackal.
Assayas was reportedly warned by the real Carlos not to make this film, but thankfully his bravery (or foolishness) won out because the five hour plus cut of Carlos is an exquisitely detailed and beautifully acted character piece with brief detours into violence. Of course with that excess length comes the risk of excessive content. The story stays strong enough through most of the running time, but it’s easy to get lost in the revolving door of supporting characters and causes as the hours tick by.
Carlos works in unison, and later in competition with, several different players on the world stage from the Japanese Red Army who stormed the French Embassy in the Hague to German revolutionary cells who accompany him on several missions. Other big names who cross paths with the Jackal include Hussein, Arafat, Chirac, and Muammar Qaddafi who hires him to kill Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. The multitude of characters move in and out of the action (and inaction) across Europe and beyond, from Paris to Beirut, and occasionally the threads bleed together and grow confusing. Who wants what? Who’s after who? Has Carlos already slept with that woman?
The core of the film though is Ramirez’ smart and often mesmerizing performance as the questionably motivated Carlos. It’s clear from the beginning that Carlos believes in his cause as his fiery words and passions command the screen. His speeches gain new recruits and convince higher-ups of his abilities and intentions, and his way with women would give James Bond reason to pause and take notes. Both of these traits begin to falter though as Carlos grows older and the world grows less interested in his ways. He loses allies and supporters, and he grows lazy with his affections. His passions turn to egotistical rants, his convictions to petty demands. Ramirez portrays both extremes and the transition between quite convincingly as evident in both his acting and his physical appearance. An early scene of a nude, muscular, and confident Carlos stands in sharp contrast to a nude, big-bellied, and defeated man that he becomes.
The action in Carlos is limited, especially for the length of the project, but when it does occur it’s usually fierce, brutal, and quick. Brief bursts of gunfire punctuate the drama and dialogue-heavy film as Carlos works his way up the list of most wanted terrorists, and these scenes work well. Not so successful are a few early scenes involving rocket launchers which were apparently beyond the financial scope of the film. The CGI explosions stand out in a film so otherwise concerned with realism. The film works around the budget constraints several times by recycling historical news footage into the live action. It adds authenticity and deftly avoids having to pay to recreate the scene.
Carlos is available in both this original mini-series version as well as a 2 1/2 hour “movie” cut, and both are well worth your time. As with John Woo’s recent historical action epic Red Cliff, if you can only watch one the ideal choice is the longer cut. It’s a rich and densely detailed time capsule of the turbulent seventies, and while it’s easy to get lost in the myriad characters the film never drags or feels slow. Assayas and Ramirez keep the story and the focus on Carlos, and even as the man and the film begin to lose their way towards the end you’ll still be engrossed by a real-life personality the likes of which the world has never seen again.
The Upside: Ramirez immerses himself into the role and delivers a standout performance; length gives ample time to explore smaller characters and subtle shifts in Carlos’ personality
The Downside: Easy to lose track of who’s who and what’s happening; budget constraints clear in shots featuring CGI explosions; focus becomes more about Carlos’ ego and womanizing than the political situations
On the Side: Carlos the Jackal emulates Che Guevara in socialist views and fashion… and star Edgar Ramirez also had a role in Steven Soderbergh’s Che