Two years ago, I leapt at the opportunity to review Taken, based mainly on my love for Liam Neeson and revenge films in general, and I absolutely adored the end result. Looking back, I think it’s safe to say that Mad Max was the first film of that kind I’d ever seen, starting a lifelong passion for the wronged hero seeking vengeance in all kinds of unethical and violent ways.
Like any genre, the offerings can be a mixed batch. The last decade has provided some films that are now firm favourites, such as Denzel Washington’s superb Man On Fire and the Jim Caviezel/Guy Pearce version of The Count Of Monte Cristo (which I’ll mention any chance I get), while the Kevin Bacon starring Death Sentence left me cold and unimpressed. Sadly, 22 Bullets (aka L’Immortal), is closer to the latter.
The poster for 22 Bullets contains a strap and tagline which any like-minded person would get excited about: “From the producers of Taken” and “The revenge of The Professional”. Now, I’m cynical enough to know that doesn’t actually mean a great deal in terms of the film’s quality, but with Luc Besson attached and his Léon star Jean Reno taking the lead, there was every chance that 22 Bullets could prove to be an exhilarating and bloody thrill.
22 Bullets isn’t a bad film, but it’s so average it hurts, providing a passable 115 minutes, just. In fact, the runtime is the film’s main problem, at times feeling painfully slow and bloated, at times using up time in an incredibly indulgent fashion. One shot that stuck in my mind was a tracking shot of some gangsters walking into a hospital, which follows them from the entrance to a lift, and nothing happens. Yet,the director somehow thought that five minutes of walking and babbling was necessary.
Taken was a lean, no frills chase, Man On Fire took time to develop the key relationship between Creasy and Pita, but 22 Bullets manages neither of those accomplishments, containing redundant scenes involving mostly unlikeable characters. All the friendships that exist within are strained, as they should be, but make it impossible to side with anyone involved. It’s a victim of its own premise, as we know that Jean Reno’s character, Charly Matteï, is a reformed outlaw, but has spent most of his life as a criminal and therefore isn’t terribly heroic.
The masked gunmen, introducing the film’s intriguing and bloody opening, set up the narrative for Reno’s retribution after filling him with (wait for it) twenty-two bullets, but you never really feel connected to his mission enough to care.
Jean Reno is still fantastic to watch and it’s a travesty that he hasn’t had more lead roles to shine in, in the years since Léon, yet I couldn’t help but feel that any sympathy I had for his plight in Bullets was solely down to his work in other, better, films. He still cuts a fine protagonist when it comes time for a little violence, though, providing most of the brutal high points as he works his way towards the person responsible for his near death experience.
Alongside the films’ pacing issues, it also suffers from a wildly erratic tone. What starts as a serious, gritty thriller, then lapses into more comic book moments of contrivance, or over the top feats of inhuman behaviour, then has a smattering of badly edited, action movie car chases.
For example, at one point, Reno’s hiding place is located by the usual smattering of armed bad guys in cars, so he escapes on a motorbike, which wouldn’t normally be a problem if we didn’t already know that he can’t use one of his hands at all, making motorbike riding a little… tricky. I thought that perhaps Reno’s character would later have a Keyser Söze moment to explain the glaring mistake, but no.
Then, later in the film, he finds himself racing against time to break into a mansion, which involves a desperate crawl through barb wire, a good chance to show the character’s desperation, but he then has to do it a further two times. It completely eradicates the tension and turns events from torturously compelling, to outright comical, like some kind of twisted Acme cartoon, which was quite entertaining, but ruined any chance of taking the drama seriously.
On a small side note, the print I saw featured plain, white subtitles over the main picture, which meant that, at times, they appeared over a white image, a problem which really shouldn’t exist anymore.
Yet again, Klaus Badelt is worthy of mention this year for another fantastic score, at times reminding me of Eric Serra’s fantastic The Fifth Element. (Badelt also provided the soundtrack to Solomon Kane.) At least somebody managed to make one of 22 Bullets’ themes consistent.
So, despite Jean Reno’s inherent charisma and strength, alongside solid performances all round, there really isn’t a great deal to be gained from watching Bullets. It falls between so many posts that it succeeds in doing nothing of any depth with its thrills, action, drama or (unintentional) comedy, while doing so, at times, with a painfully slow pace.