REVIEW: Along Came the French; Imitative Thrills Flow in "Crimson Rivers"
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/ 07.02.01) — Mathieu Kassovitz‘s “The Crimson Rivers” opens with the grisly discovery of a petrified corpse, ice-preserved, high atop the French Alps and closes, roughly two hours later, with a tense, guns-drawn standoff and computer-generated avalanche at a nearby locale. In between, Kassovitz comes down from the mountain for a couple of expert foot and car chases, a handful of thrilling stunts and the unveiling of a few more gruesome cadavers. All of which amounts to nothing so much as the filmmaking equivalent of an irreverent hand gesture made by a Gaul at a passing American tourist. In other words: If Hollywood thinks it has cornered the market on degenerative “policiers,” think again. The French can make them as big, bloody and nonsensical as we can.
“The Crimson Rivers” is slick as hell, but dumb as a post — Thierry Arbogast‘s crisp widescreen photography and a reasonably compelling scenario (courtesy of Kassovitz and co-screenwriter Jean-Christophe Grange, adapting his own novel) in service of a delirious spiral of plotting lunacy that fuses together serial killings, kidnappings, class warfare and a little bit of Darwinism with the tact of a drunken blacksmith. It has French superstars Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel as the two cops (one veteran, one wet-behind-the-ears) on the case. And it has a series of violent crimes that all relate back to a single shared element: a super-elite boarding school where the inhabitants are eerily homogeneous.
Needless, perhaps, to point out, the frozen body from the title sequence turns out to be but one clue in a sprawling mystery, and the film generates much of its initial suspense from its unusual counterbalance structure. For the first half of the film, Reno and Cassel work independently of each other with about half of the facts necessary for a full understanding of the conspiracy at hand. When they literally bump into each other mid-way through, their inevitable eureka moment makes everything that follows a lot more conventional.
But strained plotting aside, “The Crimson Rivers” is actually a good deal better than most films of this ilk, if only because Kassovitz seems to be investing so much gusto in his pantomime of an assembly-line Hollywood suspenser. Cannily promoted by its American distributor as “‘Seven’ meets ‘The Silence of the Lambs,'” the movie isn’t that by a longshot. It’s closer to being the latest entry in Paramount‘s successful Alex Cross franchise, with Reno stepping in for Morgan Freeman and the setting and effects imported from “Vertical Limit.” Except that “The Crimson Rivers,” for all its nonsense and ultimate inconsequentiality, is vastly more entertaining than “Along Came a Spider” or “Vertical Limit” (or, for that matter, “Hannibal“), and Kassovitz’s technique is so unabashedly crude, aggressive and direct.
Kassovitz doesn’t dilly-dally around with undue red herrings and faux-art pretensions. Rather, he does the Agatha Christie thing in straightforward, by-the-numbers fashion, using his creative energies to invest as much good humor as possible into an enervated form. Study carols in a library are transformed into a menacing, in-bred symbol in a glorious tracking shot; a standard-issue fist-fight becomes a rousing transposition of video-game aesthetics; and Reno himself becomes fully solidified as the heir to Belmondo’s stoic throne (just the way he fusses with a temperamental cigarette lighter puts a smile on your face).
So, much of what is both admirable and execrable about “The Crimson Rivers” flows from the same sources. On the one hand, it’s a reasonably jolting and twisting thrill-ride for your money. On the other, it’s a huge disappointment for Kassovitz, making his second film to receive significant international distribution since the brilliant “Hate” in 1995. That movie, Kassovitz’s second (but with the tumultuous energy of a debut) won the directing prize at Cannes and seemed to signal the arrival of a major new talent on the scene. I wrote then, “Those who claim the French film industry is dead owe it to themselves to see