A Gang Story – Review6.04.12 # Review # No Comment
Our A Gang Story Review.
Director: Olivier Marchal
Starring: Gérard Lanvin, Tchéky Karyo, Daniel Duval
Release Date: UK – Out Today / US – TBC
Brought to us by director Olivier Marchal, ‘A Gang Story’ (original title ‘Les Lyonnais’) is the tale of the rise and fall of the real life Lyonnais Gang who caused a media storm in the French press in the 70’s due to their bank robbing exploits. At the centre of the film are the two men who built the gang, lifelong friends Edmond Vidal and Serge Suttel. The film starts off with them as grizzled old men- well one of them’s grizzled, the other looks like he just came off the set of a Loreal commercial- but while Vidal has turned his back on the life of crime Serge is enduring a stretch in prison, seemingly unchanging in his ways.
Prior to becoming a director, Chaval had a career as a policeman. With that in mind, it’s surprising that he seems so eager to paint the gang as such a bunch of deep down good guys. Sure they rob a bank every now and again but they treat their family well and, more importantly, never rat on their friends. It becomes less surprising when you learn that the main source of information for this so called true story is the memoirs of gang leader and main character Edmond ‘Momon’ Vidal. Vidal in particular is depicted as nothing short of saintly. His entry into the world of crime is explained and excused by the fact that he and Serge were harshly sentenced to prison time as teens for the petty offence of drunkenly stealing a crate of cherries- the implication being that their overly harsh punished was because of their gypsy heritage. Throughout the film we are given the impression that despite being a gang leader and armed robber, Vidal has never committed an immoral act. I don’t know what Chaval’s role in the police was, but if he was a detective, he probably wasn’t a very good one. The film would be vastly improved had he dug deeper for other sources and portrayed the life and crimes of The Lyons gang with more balance as opposed to, well, lionising them.
Where ‘A Gang Story’ falls down throughout is in its lack of complexity. It plainly has grandiose ambitions with a structure that takes a lot from American gangster epics such as the ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘The Godfather’ but it never fully commits to the drama and fails to flesh out the characters and their relationships. The lifelong bond between the two central characters hammered home to us by repeated flashbacks to three moments: them meeting as kids in a playground, their entry into prison and a nondescript party scene. It’s not really enough to ever convince us that their bromance is as sacred as the story wants us to believe, nay needs us to believe for the inevitable finale to have any sort of emotional impact. The intrusive soundtrack doesn’t help either.
Where ‘A Gang Story’ does succeed, and this may be because it takes its cues from classic gangster films, is in its approach to violence. The action has some of the visceral intensity of Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’. Bullets actually seem capable of doing damage- crunching through soul and scenery in satisfying fashion. Also, there a few moments of the ultra-violence that suggest Chaval understands the power violence in cinema can have when handled correctly. He never manages to create any moments of perfect brutality that, for example, Martin Scorsese has done on numerous occasions- most of them involving Joe Pesci- but nonetheless there are a couple of stand-out moments: one that imitates the Pesci bar room assault in ‘Goodfellas’ and a ludicrous but memorable death by credit card scene.
I’ve cited a few American films as being clearly influential on ‘A Gang Story’ but no French. Well when it comes down to it, aside from language, A Gang Story isn’t a very French movie- stylistically or culturally. The great French director Francois Truffaut once caustically remarked on the oxymoronic nature of the phrase ‘British Cinema’. Despite his snobbery, the guy had a point. Not that good cinema isn’t made in Britain- which it is, But that British cinema has often struggled to forge an identity distinct from the mass output of its bigger language sharing cousin- which it has. France on the other hand, aided by generous government funding and a passion for cinema that derives from and accounts for it being the art form’s birthplace, has always been at the forefront of cinematic innovation and has a film market that, in terms of admissions, is third in size behind the two Woods, Holly and Bolly. But is a film such as ‘A Gang Story’ evidence we are seeing an Americanisation of French cinema? A rash postulation based on one movie yes, but consider last year’s Oscar winning French film ‘The Artist’- a film so American only a non-American could make it. Like ‘The Artist’, ‘A Gang Story’ is rooted in Hollywood cinema. But where ‘The Artist’ was brilliantly constructed homage ‘A Gang Story’ is mere apery. All in all it’s not a bad movie, in fact it is mildly entertaining, but when I go to see a French movie I want to see a French movie and not an average imitation of an American one.
Our Rating: C