Review by Jack Foley
THERE’S as much to admire in Richard Berry’s no-nonsense adaptation of Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s based-in-truth gangster thriller L’Immortel as there is, at times, to hate.
Inspired by the 1977 shooting of an alleged mafia godfather in Marseille, 22 Bullets follows the fortunes of retired mobster Charly Mattei (Jean Reno) after he is gunned down and left for dead while on a day-trip to Marseilles with his daughter.
Miraculously surviving, Mattei slowly sets about discovering who set him up and planning a measured revenge… a situation exacerbated by his enemies’ need to complete the job and the local police force’s determination to put a stop to the escalating violence.
In its favour, Berry’s film adopts a refreshingly old school approach to the violence so that you feel the pain when it’s delivered. It adds to the authenticity and raises the stakes, particularly as the men in Mattei’s life are ruthless beyond belief.
22 Bullets also benefits from a towering central performance from Reno, who manages to balance sensitivity (in his dealings with his family and daughter) with a cold, ruthless streak befitting a man trying to atone for past sins, yet dragged back into a violent world he no longer wants to be a part of.
There’s colourful support, too, from Kad Merad as Mattei’s childhood friend, turned potential enemy Tony Zacchia, and Marina Fois as the tough female detective on his trail.
Unfortunately, 22 Bullets doesn’t get everything right. Some of the violence – and, in particular, one very violent execution – borders on the unpalatable and voyeuristic (the camera seems to linger a little too gleefully), while there’s a nagging sense that even Reno’s ‘hero’ is rather less than worth rooting for given his history.
There’s an overcooked feel to much of the proceedings, too, which comes from the emphasis on style no doubt provided by the presence of Luc Besson as producer.
22 Bullets is therefore a difficult film to get behind in many ways… the sort of gangster film that wants to have its cake and eat it. Attempts to explore the conflicted morality of the men who inhabit the world it creates sometimes feel like an after-thought, while the emphasis on stylised violence also creates an uneven tone.
But Berry knows his way around an action sequence and there are several moments that do impress, as well as a nicely maintained simmering tension. Reno, too, is finally given a star vehicle to match his talents.
The overall result is therefore flawed but extremely watchable.
In French, with subtitles
Running time: 115mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: January 31, 2011