Visual-Aesthetic Porn in ‘The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch’

[18 November 2011]

By Ross Langager

Unemployment is high and job growth is low. Wall Street posts record profits while being occupied at street level by tenacious protesters, sounding off on the increasingly gaping income disparity ratio. The Eurozone is fracturing, and two of its gangrenous southern limbs (Greece and Italy) may be amputated. In a word, confidence in free market corporate capitalism is low.

What better time, then, for the North American release of a pulpy European corporate thriller about an adventurer defending his newly inherited multinational conglomerate from hostile takeovers? How better to represent our current cultural milieu than using it as a superficial backdrop for private espionage, breathless chases, bruising fistfights, and perilous sexual intrigue? What film could expose our times with more wit and clarity of purpose than The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch?

I am, of course, being facetious. Jérôme Salle’s slick adaptation of Philippe Francq and Jean Van Hamme’s popular Belgian comic book series is not much concerned with portraying any sort of contemporary social reality, or any sort of reality, period. It’s a luxurious, unsubtle, and functionally ludicrous action film in the James Bond-derived Hollywood tradition, sprinkled with Gallic flair, Belgian avarice, and Balkan scruffiness.

The Heir Apparent opens with breakneck international scene changes, beginning in Hong Kong’s harbor and rapidly cutting to a Yugoslavian orphanage before settling for a spell in a remote town on the Amazon in Brazil. We meet the adult edition of our oddly named protagonist (played by Tomer Sisley) in the latter sequence, receiving a dragon tattoo that purportedly imparts indestructibility. (Why is an Asian tattoo master plying his trade in the middle of the rainforest? We do not ask such questions.)

Interrupted by the cries of a damsel in distress, Largo roughs up some local lunk-headed militiamen and escapes on a stolen motorbike with the girl (Mélanie Thierry), who tells him she’s with an NGO. They wind up naked and sweaty and passionate in bed, of course, but then she drugs him, plants narcotics in his room, and calls the authorities. Tough luck, but really, he should have suspected. When has a woman who works at an NGO ever hopped in the sack on the first date?

After this, the location switching slows to an oscillation between the polished towers of unbridled capital in Hong Kong and the dusty, sun-soaked Dalmatian coast, while the plot becomes increasingly byzantine. Largo is heir to Winch International, a financial firm built up by his secretive father (adoptive or, maybe, not), Nerio Winch (Miki Manojlović). We see Nerio grooming the rebellious Largo for his destiny as a prominent CEO in a series of flashbacks; most of his lessons seem to involve knives, which prove to be more useful than you would think in the movie’s version of the business world.

This world seems to be enmeshed in an eternal power struggle largely without specific content, a high-stakes tug of war over the control of lots of money and nothing else in particular. The players include a corporate battle-axe (Kristin Scott-Thomas), a sneering Russian plutocrat (Karel Roden), the granite-faced head of company security, Marcus (Stephen Waddington), as well as the pouty-lipped femme fatale Largo met in Brazil, who is playing both sides (truthfully, I lost track at the triple-cross). Largo also gets some help from a scarred underworld fixer named Freddy (Gilbert Melki), his underused oddball butler Gauthier (Nicolas Vaude), and William Kwan (Benedict Wong), W’s financial guru. He seems to have fished his MBA out of a dumpster behind a Taco Bell and displays an inordinate fondness for the word “riposte.”

The sarcastic tone of my description obscures some of Largo Winch’s agreeable features. Salle has an eye for the grand visual stroke. Largo’s two confrontations with his nemesis Marcus—at the edge of a cliff on a remote Croatian island and on a rooftop terrace in Hong Kong—sweep and swoop by excitingly. The recurring helicopter tracking shots and Alexandre Desplat’s relentless musical cues heighten the proceedings to the level of comic-book myth.

As skyscrapers shimmer, luxury cars glisten, and a woman’s bare buttocks glow with sensual light, you might want to charge the whole damned thing to the company credit card and write it off as a business expense. There’s the occasional lovely smaller touch, too, like broken glass dancing on asphalt as a large truck bears down on Largo and Freddy. Michael Bay would perhaps not be terribly impressed, but the rest of us mere mortals can nod in appreciation.

Some of the actors look vaguely human amid the visual-aesthetic porn, but the highlight is veteran Serbian character actor Manojlović, As Nerio, he seems to step straight off the cover of The Songs of Leonard Cohen. With his thick hair, serious suits, and deeply etched face, he suggests a laconic solemnity that no character in a movie as silly as this one really deserves, but I was glad to see it anyway.

Still, The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch is quite silly. This might be expected from a comic-book adaptation, but it isn’t laudable by any means. For an action-adventure set predominantly in the corporate realm, this portrait of big business is incredibly thin, subsisting mostly on business espionage clichés and mock-heroic Manichean binaries. Largo barely seems to care about running the company he risks life and limb to save from the clutches of evildoers, itching as he is for more intrigue in the wider world. In this way, Salle’s essentially trivial movie may have something to say about the wealth-for-wealth’s-sake assumptions of contemporary elites, after all.

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