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Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2002
Flattery will get you absolutely nowhere
By KAORI SHOJI
"J'accuse" is the phrase that pops into your mind upon watching "Le boulet (The Ball)," brought to you by French filmmakers Alain Berberian and Frederic Forestier. "Le boulet" is an action-comedy-thriller and a prime example of French cinema going Hollywood. Every single ingredient found in the buddy/action/comedy genre is thrown in, with the kind of meticulousness that makes you suspect it was all intentional. Originality? Non. Sarcasm and irony? Ah, non. Berberian and Forestier apparently thought it was enough to show the world that they could do this, too, meme en Francais. Then they stopped right there and went off to have lunch.
While French cinema has periodically demonstrated a flair for action thrillers ("Nikita," the "Taxi" series ), such works have attempted a departure from Hollywood formula (being French, this was only natural). Now suddenly, here's "Le boulet" deeming that Hollywood formula is tres cool. Especially the formula from the '80s, when the wild car chases in "The Cannonball Run" and the buddy tag team of "Lethal Weapon" was still fresh and fun.
OK, so maybe the '80s is experiencing a resurrection. Perms and shoulder pads are coming back. Yuppie suits are now acceptable party wear. Somehow, though, what works for fashion doesn't really work for movies, at least not for this one. The biggest snag is that (in true '80s Hollywood style) "Le boulet" feels more manufactured than designed and crafted -- a feeling that most sensible 21st-century movies will do anything to avoid.
If "Le boulet" succeeds at all, this is mainly due to the cast: a happy team-up of Cesar (the French equivalent of the Academy Award) winner Gerard Lanvin and Belgian comedian Benoi^t Poelvoorde. Their buddy combination feeds rather blatantly on their contrasting traits (dark and fair, silent and verbose, forbidding and unfriendly, etc.), but they have a definite chemistry going, and this chemistry is the only spontaneous, local factor in this movie. The rest consists of the usual expensive car chase, building explosions, bullet ballet, sleazy bad guys and exotic setting. Wham! One action movie avec pommes frites, coming right up.
Lanvin plays Moltes, a hardass con doing time for murder. In prison, he becomes friendly with one of the guards, a jovial chatterbox called Reggio (Poelvoorde). Moltes buys a lotto ticket and entrusts it to Reggio for safekeeping. Meanwhile, Reggio has a major fight with his nurse wife, Pauline (Rossy de Palma, who reveals herself as a sizzling mambo dancer in what turns out to be the best scene in the movie). In a huff, she goes off to Africa to work for the Dakar Rally -- with Moltes' ticket in her hand. But then, of course, this ticket takes the 15 million euros jackpot and Moltes breaks out of prison to confront Reggio and demand it back.
After a lengthy interrogation scene in which Reggio explains that no, he didn't steal the ticket, and yes, his wife has it, the two then decide to track down the elusive Pauline, on duty somewhere in the Sahara. On their heels is Moltes' nemesis, "Le Turk" (Jose Garcia), whose brother Moltes killed before going to prison.
Thus begins the chase for money and vengeance, picturesque desert sands kicking up in every frame. Along the way, Moltes and Reggio exchange insults and bicker constantly but are bonded by their staunch friendship. Reggio does all the talking and clowning around; Moltes takes care of the strong, silent, shoot-first-think-later department.
The trouble with this whole set-up has as much to do with the viewer as it does with the movie: Many of us have seen one too many buddy films, one too many tattooed biceps, one too many stunts that involve firing from two guns at the same time while flying through space and screaming profanities. Talk about deja vu -- we've already seen all there is to see in "Le boulet" to the point that flashbacks start blending in, making collage patterns and inducing a weird, hallucinatory state. The only things that snaps you back to sobriety is the soundtrack (French pop) and everyone saying "merde!" instead of "shit!" Indeed, the dialogue (an area in which French cinema had always aimed for excellence) seems artificial and translated, as if dubbed from some Hollywood production. Perhaps to compensate, the filmmakers ditch meaningful conversation for a series of not-so-funny sight gags, weary and repetitive.
To love "Le boulet," you'd have to be either completely innocent of the action-film experience, or else deeply patriotic and a firm believer in the French domestic product, no matter if it's a copy. Otherwise, you may as well admit it: There are just some things Americans do better.