By Marty Mulrooney
22 Bullets is a French thriller directed by Richard Berry. It stars Jean Reno (Léon, Ronin) as Charly Matteï, a retired mobster who seeks revenge on his former childhood friend after being gunned down and left for dead in the underground car park of Marseille’s Old Port. 22 Bullets is out from today (31st January 2011) on DVD and Blu-ray.
Although inspired by real-life events in the world of the Marseille Mafia, the premise of 22 Bullets initially sounds quite outlandish. For a person to be shot that many times – at close range no less – and survive is nothing short of a miracle… yet Jean Reno is a gifted actor. He sells the character of Charly and the events that unfold around him in a way that doesn’t feel too stretched or ridiculous, even when it really is. His near-death experience and subsequent path of vengeance is a given from the opening credits, but the film itself isn’t as predictable as one would perhaps first expect.
The camerawork and cinematography offer a mixture of styles. The non-action scenes actually look most effective (especially in high definition) showing off some absolutely stunning Marseille locations, both in sunshine and rain. Strong direction during the quieter character interactions could even fool channel flickers into momentarily thinking that they have found a gentle French drama rather than a bloody revenge thriller.
Sadly, the results elsewhere aren’t so pleasing. Sepia-toned sequences used during flashbacks look cheap, with the action sequences not falling far behind with their overuse of sped-up action, shaky camerawork and quick-cuts. How peculiar that in a film marketed as a typical action flick, 22 Bullet’s greatest strengths lie with its character interactions, moments of downtime and overall reflective mood.
Jean Reno chooses to remain largely quiet as Charly Matteï, his anger and pain a foregone conclusion. His portrayal is to the point: when he chooses to speak, it actually means something. This is a refreshing approach, especially as the dialogue itself isn’t particularly strong. It may sacrifice some character development – and therefore likeability – but it certainly makes Charly a much more believable protagonist. The score by award-winning German composer Klaus Bedelt (Gladiator) admittedly sounds rather generic during the action sequences, but elsewhere it sounds beautiful, underpinning scenes that otherwise would have likely floundered with genuine emotion.
Jean-Pierre Darroussin (Conversations With My Gardener) is superb as Charly’s lawyer and close friend. The twists and turns his character takes are the most interesting plot-wise and I only wish that his relationship with Charly had been focused on more extensively. A subplot with a female police officer (Marina Foss) is largely underdeveloped too, which is a shame as the various storylines could have tied together much more smoothly. Perhaps making up for missed opportunities, a powerhouse performance from French-Algerian actor Kad Merad as betrayer Tony Zacchia practically steals the entire show. So much more than just a token bad guy, his hygiene fears, debilitating stutter and penchant for violence all combine to create a monster that is fascinating to watch in action.
Overall, 22 Bullets is greater than the sum of its parts. Strong acting and high production values are clearly evident throughout, making up for an often weak script. It doesn’t excel as a pure action film, but then again it doesn’t entirely fail as one either. The dramatic elements work surprisingly well and it is often a gorgeous film to look at. Perhaps an action film where the action itself isn’t the main focus wasn’t such a bad idea after all…
7.5 OUT OF 10
AMO’s review copies of 22 Bullets were provided on DVD and Blu-ray by Organic Marketing.
Special Features: Interviews / 22 Bullets in Marseille / Making Of / Trailers
Special Features on the Blu-ray are shown in high definition.