If you, like many a filmgoer, have been head-over-heels in love with the serious Frenchman that is Jean Reno, then your prayers have been answered. It’s even entirely in French.
This is not a happy film. Do not be fooled by the opening few minutes showcasing a little car, a cute toddler, an adorable dog and the lovely French streets that are all so… passive. Not ten minutes pass before someone’s being shot at point blank range by several gunmen, and the cinematographer didn’t see any issues with showing us this directly.
If anything, that’s a good thing. Too many action films proclaim themselves to be full of blood and guts, and then take the Reservoir Dogs approach to actually depicting violence. But 22 Bullets (produced by Luc Besson who directed Reno in Leon and Wasabi) seems to take the realistic attitude that if someone’s getting shot, seeing them in hospital afterwards has little impact on the audience if they don’t see cause of the character’s discomfort.
Charly Matteï (Reno) is a retired mobster. Since he was young, he’s been whacking his enemies left and right without a thought for the consequences. Of course, the consequences eventually include being shot twenty-two times (eh? eh? see what they did there?) at close quarters by a gang of angry mobsters, with his toddler waiting anxiously for him to return from wherever he was going. Of course, he never actually returns, that day.
Waking up in the hospital, he does what most sane, rational killers would do – he gets up, finds a walking stick, and goes on the hunt for the people who took away his ability to walk. This is one of Jean Reno‘s major strengths as an actor – he conveys an aura of French nonchalance so well that it feels as though the hardcase you saw in Leon never went away.
It can be difficult to humanise a mobster, unless you surround them with a vulnerable, fallible family unit. Goodfellas, Analyse This, The Sopranos – they all rely heavily on the mob family and the vulnerability that creates in the protagonist. Can you shoot an evil man? Sure. But can you shoot him if you know it will leave a widow and two grieving children in his wake? I’d wager the answer isn’t as confident, if the same at all.
Charly’s family are an important catalyst for his transmutation back into a hitman, and he is only able to really pursue those who wronged him once his family have been safely squared away with far-off friends. So, he is able to protect them while he puts himself in danger once more. Make no bones about it – this film wouldn’t work in English. There’s something about the French delivery, especially from an experienced Hollywood-crossover actor like Reno, that really adds weight to dialogue that may seem clichéd in an American or British action film.
It’s quite breathtaking, Charly’s relentless assault against the mobsters who attempted to kill him. It only gets worse once he finds out they’ve taken something very dear to him (won’t spoil it for you, but it’s fairly dark). He is unstoppable – he doesn’t pause to utter witty phrases, or to taunt his enemies before he kills them. He’s no Willis, no Brosnan – his name is Jean Reno and he does not do generic heroism.
If you’re into French films, give 22 Bullets a shot, and even if you’re into action films – surely it’s not that big a leap from watching the endless waves of Asian martial arts films to un action film Francais? At least this time there’s no roundhouse kicks, no slow-mo gunplay, just old-fashioned gritty realism and a very, very angry Frenchman.