As director/writer/producer Luc Besson has been responsible for a seemingly endless number of slick action films filled with gunplay, heroics, and a clear disregard for the laws of physics. He’s made action stars out of children and women (The Professional and La Femme Nikita), street gymnasts (District 13), and cabbies (Taxi). Hell, he even turned comic actor Jason Statham into a convincing action lead with The Transporter. Recently he’s found a new niche with lead actors approaching their sixth decade of life. Taken saw Liam Neeson demonstrating his very specific set of skills against some baddies, and now Jean Reno is shooting his way throughout the beautiful city of Marseilles in a bloody tale of revenge and family business gone awry.
Charley Mattei (Reno) is a happily married father of two who once upon a time was also a mobster. He quit the business to focus on the joys of family, but it seems his past family, the ones that carry guns and horse heads in the trunks of their cars, didn’t like the way he said goodbye. They ambush him one morning and leave him for dead with twenty-two bullets lodged in his blood-drenched body. But they made two mistakes… they killed his dog. And they didn’t kill him.
“Spilled blood never dries.”
On the other side of the moral compass from Mattei sits Marie Goldman (Marina Foïs), a police captain whose cop husband was killed in the line of duty. The men who made her a widow may be the same ones who tried to snuff out Mattei, and while the two aren’t quite working together they eventually realize they’re working towards a similar goal. He gets to go about his business as the genre dictates while she works confined within the law. She’s not the lead, but the character and Foïs’ performance are both strong enough that a feature focused on her is an appealing prospect.
But the film is fairly traditional so the the bulk of the film’s time and charisma rests on the shoulders of Reno and his vengeful ex-mobster. He does a solid job with the character and makes him both a believable family man and capable killer. Reno has always had a sleepy eyed charm about him, and it suits him well here playing a man recovering from 22 bullet wounds. Sure, he should probably look a bit more worse for wear but tired will have to do. He does get some fantastic and threatening dialogue to play with as evidenced in a scene where he walks into a room holding a grenade with several of the shooters seated at a table.
Everybody get it? I’m gonna kill you all. All of you. One after the other, but not right now. I want you to think about what you did… think about it day and night, beg your wives and children for forgiveness, tell them why you’re gonna die. And when you’re least expecting it, tomorrow, in six months, or a year, I’ll be there.”
That’s not an empty threat either, although his time estimate is a bit excessive… the movie basically wraps up a day or two later. The action becomes a give and take as he takes out some baddies, they take out his friends, and so it goes like a French version of Munich. Only with far lower stakes. Director Richard Berry fills the film with gunplay that’s solid and suitably bloody, and there’s also a well executed car chase to keep the adrenaline flowing.
Less successful are some of the attempts to add weight to the unfolding drama via flashback to Mattei’s early years. There aren’t quite enough of them to convince us of the bond between Mattei and his cohorts, and it becomes a matter of telling us about their friendship instead of showing it. There’s also a poorly edited crawl through barbed wire during what should have been a suspenseful scene… the music and the events onscreen are ramped up but repeated cuts back to Mattei crawling and crawling and crawling deflate the energy and suspense of the scene almost completely.
The film is billed as the return of “the professional” but the films and characters are worlds apart. Where Leon was a kind and soulful mystery, Mattei is a retired killer who garners little sympathy from the viewer. That actually works to the film’s benefit though as flawed and unforgivable protagonists are the often far more interesting than the alternative. Often, but not always, which leaves 22 Bullets as a solid if unmemorable action thriller that continues Besson’s streak of movies that are fun to watch and easy to forget. Now if only we can get him to cast Reno and Neeson side by side as a pair of ass kicking sexagenarians.
22 Bullets is now available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from Anchor Bay Entertainment.
The Upside: Jean Reno is at his best when he’s kicking ass; beautiful use of Marseilles; some well done set pieces; less ridiculous than most Luc Besson productions
The Downside: Extended crawl through barbed wire is laborious to watch; score tries too hard to excite; less ridiculous than most Luc Besson productions