A Gang Story Review

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Score

A moody, broody and bloody French crime flick from Olivier Marchal.

French crime cinema seems to be enjoying quite a renaissance of late, with a rich vein of gritty and stylish dramas such as A Prophet, Mesrine and Carlos finding success outside of the country’s protectionist cultural borders. In a similar timeframe, writer-director Olivier Marchal has been churning out morally ambiguous, sporadically violent crime flicks that have drawn on his own experience as a cop, peaking with 2004’s César-nominated, Depardieu-starring 36.

Marchal’s new film, A Gang Story, is based on the true story of an infamous stick-up gang that worked the Lyon region in the '60s and '70s. In the present day, gang leader Momon Vidal (Gérard Lanvin) seeks a peaceful life in which to grow old, raise a family, and, in his case, develop a tasty combo of bronzed tan and immaculate facial hair. Such peace, however, is disrupted when Serge (Tchéky Karyo), Momon’s unpredictable former colleague, crawls out of the woodwork and brings with him snooping cops, vengeful crooks and long-repressed memories of their youthful capers.

With its cutting back and forth between a de-saturated past and an autumnal present, A Gang Story’s narrative simply refuses to fit into 100 minutes. Such an interlacing of time periods, and the slow-burning character development that comes with it, practically begs for the broader scope of a television series. Indeed, if the Deep Purple-cribbing opening titles sequence is anything to go by, with its punchy cast roll-call, Marchal might have been better framing this as a late-night serial.

When under feature-length time constraints, themes, characters and pacing jostle together awkwardly. Young Momon and Serge’s years of criminal action are condensed into kicky montage sequences, where dates are emblazoned on the screen in a vain attempt to evoke the passing of time. In the present, middle-aged Momon mopes around, pondering the past while mournfully tying up loose ends. Likewise, instead of giving the proceedings an unseemly edge, Marchal’s indulgent flashes of wince-inducing violence too often dissipate the simmering, consistent tension.

The themes at play here may be well-trodden, but they are not without some heft. Early scenes, where Momon and his associates plan to break Serge out of confinement, only to conclude that, “cops can outgun us oldies”, give a remarkably weathered spin on the old-gangster schtick. And the protagonist’s occluded relationship with a nosy cop (Patrick Catalifo), which progresses over a number of curt stand-offs, would be superb if given more space to breathe.

As both Mesrine and Carlos have shown, a larger canvas allows exploration, where here is simply exposition. Shifting time periods, lifelong conflicts and complicated characters can become developed and defined, and the lives of real-world antiheroes can be played out for potentially ignorant audiences. By flip-flopping from Les Lyonnais to A Gang Story, Marchal’s latest film admits that its evocation of true crime is lacking. That shift from definite to indefinite article is key, as this is a film where unique beginnings follow through to predictable, unremarkable ends.

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