In action movies, speed, surprise, the clash of fists or the wisp of a bullet's path can transcend the need for narrative; sometimes, the cinema of distraction adds up to a satisfying whole. That's not the case in "The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch," an adaptation of the 1970's Belgian comic book series. It slogs through a conspiratorial plot involving a wealthy conglomerate and the rascally young adventurer set to inherit its riches, but tosses those complex developments aside whenever its titular hero finds himself in danger. Then it's a solid ride.
We meet carefree traveler Largo (Tomer Sisley) as he's getting into random trouble with some Brazilian thugs. Plucked from a jail cell by a representative of the company owned by his father, Neiro Winch (Miki Manojlovic), the adopted Largo quickly learns that the old man has been mysteriously murdered. That makes Largo the only person aware where Neiro hid his share in the company, pricey information that instantly puts Largo on a hit list. The company's risk-averse board, headed by an icy Kristin Scott Thomas, disputes whether Largo can be trusted, but Largo soon discovers he can trust no one. Whoever took out his father also has crosshairs on his son.
Every time "Largo Winch" appears overburdened with details, it slows down to explain itself. Someone even says, "I'm the story's bad guy," following an elaborate monologue on his intentions of nabbing those elusive shares. That line might come across as Godardian reflexivity in a movie not so committed to taking itself seriously.
"Largo Winch" is full of irksome stops and starts, never fully committed to being a globe-spanning yarn and thrown off balance with the thinly conceived outline of a financial thriller. Nevertheless, director Jérome Salle (who co-wrote "Duplicity" and "The Tourist" and already completed a second "Largo Winch" movie) injects life whenever Largo faces immediate peril. He knows how to make an audience jump. Tomer Sisley perfectly embodies the character as a grimier James Bond. Largo's not just the star of the show; he's the show, period. "I like your name," moans a woman he beds only minutes after his first scene.
It's appropriate that "Largo Winch" opens in U.S. theaters a month ahead of another, far more anticipated Belgian comic book adaptation: Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn," a quasi-animated envisioning of Hergé's famous series, which concluded around the same time that Phillip Francq and Jean Van Hamme's "Largo Winch" series began (although an English translations only began publication in 2008). The contrast between the two series explains why Tintin maintains wider appeal.
Largo and Tintin face various conflicts for entirely separate reasons. Genuinely curious, oddly asexual and always good-natured, Tintin risks his life because he thrives on it. The suave, quick-witted Largo has no choice in the matter and must constantly dodge villains intent on stealing his fortune. This distinction prevents "Largo Winch" from fully enjoying its potential as a shameless action showcase. For Largo, the whole thing is a something of a chore; in that, we identify with him.
criticWIRE grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Music Box Films releases "Largo Winch" in New York and L.A. on Friday. Fans of the comic book may turn up to support it, but this franchise only has real legs in Europe.