The idea of blurring the moral line between cops and crooks is not new, but rarely has it been done with such panache as in Olivier Marchal’s 36 (36 Quai des Orfvres). Inspired by Marchal’s own experiences as a policeman and by true events involving police corruption in the eighties, it is a cross between The Count of Monte Cristo and Michael Mann’s Heat.
With crisp action sequences and two storming central performances from Daniel Auteuil and Grard Depardieu, the movie explores the murky interchange between law enforcers and law breakers.
Paris police chief Robert Mancini (Andr Dussollier) is about to leave his post, and must pick his successor from either Lo Vrinks (Auteuil), Head of the Anti-Gang Squad, or Denis Klein (Depardieu), Head of the Organized Crime Unit. Mancini lets it be known that whoever nails a gang of armed raiders, who have been operating with unprecedented violence, will replace him as the boss of 36.
The inter-departmental rivalry and personal ambition of the two lieutenants is given even more of an edge by the fact that Klein has never forgiven his former friend Vrinks for marrying the woman he loved, Camille (Valeria Golino). As the two men use increasingly dodgy tactics to catch the gang and further their own careers, the film evolves into a dark revenge thriller
It’s easy to see why this compelling story turned out to be the biggest-grossing movie in France in 2004, though not why it’s taken almost two years to reach the UK. It’s a remarkable achievement for writer-director Marchal, in only his second full-length feature, to create such a cracking thriller featuring the two greatest male stars of the French cinema in the last 30 years.
Like his debut, the violent low-budget Gangsters, about undercover cops investigating police corruption, it uses his own inside knowledge to expose the shortcomings of the French judicial system while providing full-blooded entertainment.
From the action-packed opening scenes, which cut between helmeted motorcyclists unscrewing the Quai des Orfvres street sign to be given as a leaving present to a detective and a bunch of thugs entering a sleazy basement club, we are unsure who, if anyone, is on the right side of the law.
Later we see police prepared to be almost as ruthless as the criminals they are pursuing. Disenchanted with their senior managers and often competing against each other rather than collaborating, they inhabit a violent, drink-sodden world where good and bad get hopelessly confused.
The noirish quality of the subject-matter is reflected in the frequent night-time sequences and subdued colours of Denis Rouden’s cinematography, though the ominous music from Erwann Kermorvant and Axelle Renoir is rather overdone.
The script (co-written by Franck Mancuso and Julien Rappeneau) also goes too far in the last third of the film, where its ambivalent grey hues become simplistically pitch black. In the end, it loses its way in a frenzy of rather implausible sensationalism.
Auteuil and Depardieu, a screen partnership that goes back to Jean de Florette 20 years ago, are as mesmerizing as De Niro and Pacino were in Heat. Auteuil plays the more sympathetic character, as the intensely driven Vrinks is shown to be more of a family man who cuts corners to succeed in his job. Meanwhile, Depardieu’s embittered alcoholic Klein, at once menacing and pitiful, becomes increasingly villainous as he betrays his ex-friend and supposed colleague.
But both are alike in having an unhealthy obsession with their work in a twilight zone which becomes all-consuming.