By Matt Smith
The plot for the new French thriller Point Blank is a gangly barely-there structure that still manages to hold up about as well as one should ever expect from a well-calibrated pulse-pounder. I’m not slamming the film at all; I really liked it. The central image is of a man running – from and to we don’t ever quite know. He could wind up dead, or his path could lead him to redemption. That forms the crux of the film’s drama as we get involved in our hero’s plight. Directed by Fred Cavaye, whose previous film, Anything for Her, was adapted into last year’s The Next Three Days, and which shares a similar spouse in peril plot engine that pits an ordinary guy against corrupt police officers and other obstacles, Point Blank offers a great ride through police corruption and encounters with the criminal underworld in the name of saving one’s family.
In this film, a nurse’s aid, Samuel (Gilles Lellouche), becomes embroiled in a plot to frame a safecracker named Hugo (Roschdy Zem) for the murder of a wealthy CEO. When Hugo’s crew kidnaps Samuel’s pregnant wife, Nadia, in order for him to help Hugo escape custody, the story gets even more complicated, and the cops tie Samuel to the murder as well. However ludicrous this would all seem if it happened in real life, the film has the virtue of adrenaline and meticulously planned chase sequences, which make up the bulk of the movie to be sure.
These chases, mostly on foot but occasionally in a car, are designed in different styles throughout the film, which helps to alleviate any sense of monotony that could possibly rear its head. Beginning pretty simply with Hugo’s escape from the cops who are trying to kill him and frame him for their crime, and leading through parallel editing of separate chases once our two protagonists go their own ways for a bit, there’s a surprising amount of variety in a bunch of set pieces that are essentially the same thing: someone narrowly escaping the pursuit of someone else.
The best set piece, however, comprises the entirety of the film’s last twenty minutes or so, and finds Hugo and Samuel breaking into the central police station so that they can recover incriminating evidence against their pursuers and rescue Nadia, who is now in the clutches of the corrupt police Commandant Werner, following another murder they’re attempting to frame Samuel for. This particularly insane behavior is set in motion thanks to a plan set in motion by Hugo’s underworld connections earlier in the day. The police force is overloaded with work by an agreement with other criminals to simultaneously commit crimes all over the city, thereby making the police department and madhouse and allowing for two people to slip in relatively easily.
I can’t really describe how thrilling the start of all this is. We see a monitoring station with officers watching an array of CCTV cameras and make a call when one crime happens, but slowly they notice that there is something going on on all of the monitors, and its too much for anyone to handle. It’s handled with humor, and really gets the blood pumping for the intensity of what is about to happen with Samuel at the police station as all the plot threads start to come together.
There’s some nice character work by Roschdy Zem, who I have seen and admired in a couple of films by French Albanian director Rachid Bouchareb, Days of Glory and Outside the Law. In those films, which detail the struggles of Algerians and the difficult relationship they have with their French imperial past, he is captivating, but in a large ensemble tends to fall into a pack identity. In this thriller, he’s essential to the story and doesn’t play what one might expect of a typical ‘villain’ character. Sure, he might be a criminal, but he’s not out to kill anyone. Hugo is a character of compassion for Samuel under the facade of a hardened criminal, and that can be difficult to pull off convincingly. Zem pulls it off, and proves he’s a world class talent, and I’d like to see more of his stuff make its way stateside. Get on it Hollywood.
So, bottom line, it may not be perfect; it may not be anything more than a simple thriller. That doesn’t mean that Point Blank isn’t worth your time. There’s action, plenty of surprises, and even some harrowing things that happen to pregnant women from time to time. It’s a lot of fun and a great international answer to American action thrillers, even if it suffers a bit from similar problems.