Every generation thinks they’ve discovered sex, so the saying goes; the same probably applies to terrorism. Barely a month goes by now without someone trying to ignite a bomb hidden in their pants, but it’s easy to forget that back in the 1970s there were numerous terrorist outrages too. Carlos tells the story of big name in terrorism in that decade.

Carlos the film - still

If your memory doesn’t extend all the way back to the 70s, you might recognise Carlos’s face from the cover of the classic Nineties album It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah by Black Grape, Madchester-singer Shaun Ryder’s band after the Happy Mondays imploded. They used an Andy Warholised picture of a round-faced man with a square haircut, hidden behind a huge pair of round shades. That was Carlos in one of his many disguises.

It''s Great When Your Straight... yeah cover

Anyway, this film is both fascinating and gripping, with first-rate performances. It starts in the early Seventies with an explosion of kipper ties, bell bottoms and far-out facial hair. The world was aflame with student radicalism, anti-Vietnam war protests were rocking America and pro-Palestinian terrorism was shocking the world. Although originally from Venezuela, Carlos is one of many young radicals living in London. While radical talk and protest marches are enough for most of them, Carlos reasons that only violent action is enough to bring about change. So, he joins the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). It doesn’t take long before he’s carrying out jobs.

Shooting and bombing his way around London in black leather jacket and beret, Carlos seems to be modelling himself on Che. A driving punk soundtrack, although slightly out of place in the section of the film set in the early to mid-Seventies, effectively matches the frenetic action and Carlos’s rebellious persona. With his long sideboards, bottles of whisky and slick revolutionary rhetoric, Carlos thinks he’s pretty cool. Beautiful women are as important to him as plastic explosives and a well-oiled pistol.

There are points, especially early in the film, where it appears that Édgar Ramírez as Carlos is demonstrating some awfully wooden acting. However, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that that’s just his character: a narcissistic ideologue spouting platitudes which can appear pretty stilted. In fact, though Carlos might think of himself as a rock and roll terrorist, he’s a bit of a prat (and a horribly violent one at that). As one of his numerous lovers says, “you’re not afraid of clichés”.

After a few smaller jobs and a violent encounter with some French police, Carlos is given a really big responsibility by his Palestinian controller. He is sent to kidnap all 42 Oil Ministers attending the 1975 meeting of OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) in Vienna. One of the virtues of the film is its history lessons: the Munich Olympics Games terrorism is well known, but despite being an audacious raid in which three people lost their lives, the OPEC attacks are much less so. It is also interesting to see the lack of anti-terrorist measures – there’s not so much as a sleepy policeman on the door for Carlos and his gang to grapple with.

The raid doesn’t go as well as Carlos might have hoped, and so begins the reversal in his fortunes. He’s kicked out of the PFLP – which is lucky, as this means he misses out on being selected for the Entebbe hijacking in which all the terrorists die – but his subsequent efforts at terrorism are less successful. At this point the pace of the film slows down, Carlos is no longer the master of his own destiny, or relevant, in the changing political climate and ends up moving between countries in search of asylum. Despite this change in pace, the film doesn’t flag – Carlos may be vain and ludicrous, but he’s still a compelling character. We think: whatever next?

These early-model terrorists seem to be quite a popular subject for film makers now, first there was One Day in September, then Munich and the Baader Meinhof Complex, and possibly even Steven Soderbergh’s Che. It’s helpful to learn that there have always been people willing to kill for their ideals. One obvious difference between the days of the seventies and the present is the motivations of the terrorists: back then they were in it for socialism and more secular ideals, now it’s the name of God.

That takes us to the end of this exciting and fascinating film. Carlos is sheltering in Sudan where, converted to Islam, he’s teaching how how to run an insurgency. No doubt the principles he taught are currently being used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fluent in three languages, Ramírez makes an excellent Carlos, the terrorist held hostage by his own image of himself. The director, Olivier Assasyas, whose previous biggest film was Irma Vep, deftly manages to make a long film (2hrs 45mins) hold the attention until the end. This film should get both men recognised in the Anglophone world. A disclaimer at the beginning of the movie says that this is a work of fiction, possibly because Carlos himself threatened to sue the film makers over what his sees as inaccuracies. The director maintains that “the events and mechanisms of Carlos’ ‘career’ are as accurate as possible in terms of current understanding”. Whatever the case, the film raises questions that send you off to the web to learn more about the actual events, surely a good quality in a movie.

Read our review of the full length, Carlos mini-series here.

Carlos is currently available to buy on both DVD and Blu-Ray.

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Rating: 4.3/5 (4 votes cast)
Carlos the Jackal, the movie – reviewed, 4.3 out of 5 based on 4 ratings