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Cop Opera: '36th Precinct'

Once you get past the chest pounding and the machismo, you wind up with a near masterpiece, a stellar work of cop operatics.


36 Quai des Orfèvres

Rated: R
Director: Olivier Marchal
Cast: Daniel Auteuil, André Dussollier, Gérard Depardieu, Roschdy Zem, Valeria Golino, Mylène Demongeot
Extras: 7
Studio: Tartan Video
Year: 2004
US date: 2011-06-14 (General release)

The street smart battle between good and evil doesn't get any more epic than 36th Precinct (released as 36 elsewhere in the world). Part autobiography, part manipulative movie magic, this tale of two senior police officers (Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu) clashing to crack a coveted case has all the elements we expect from the genre: law enforcement working both sides of the moral and legal fence; unnecessary competition between two arguably unequal sides; severe loyalty and the faulty results of same; vicious gangs out to undermine society; strong women still reluctant to completely stand by their man; wrongs and the many brutal ways to right them. In the hands former detective turned director Olivier Marchal, what could be rote become revelatory. Instead of sticking with the standard shoot 'em up dynamic, this filmmaker goes for something more classical - call it a cop opera, or a "copera."

After yet another daring and deadly daylight robbery, the French government is livid. They want answers from Superintendant Robert Mancini (André Dussollier) as to why these vicious criminals haven't been caught. Putting his best men on the job - the likeable if suspect Léo Vrinks (Auteuil) and the skilled if sleazy Denis Klein (Depardieu) - he hopes to spur a quick resolution. The prize? Am administrative promotion that will set one or the other up for life. Mancini wants Vrinks to get it, but Klein is not about to sit back and let favoritism rule the day. When he discovers that his rival was involved in some shady dealings with an informant, he uses the information toward his own ends. When Klein then ends up in hot water himself, he uses the tip to frame Vrinks. Soon, the storyline shifts. The bad guys are caught and our heroes are battling head to head, each one hoping to trump the other before landing in jail...or worse.

Before you jump to any wrongheaded conclusions, you have not seen a cop drama quite like 36th Precinct (new to DVD and Blu-ray from Palisades/Tartan) . It's like The Godfather of police procedural infighting. Initially, with all its quiet violence and over the top atmosphere, you'd swear you were in for a b-movie snoozer. But because Marchal knows this material so well (he based most of it on his 12 years of experience as an officer) and has an amazing eye for visual composition, what we end up with is a mesmerizing museum piece. It's like the Louvre struck by lightning. The performances are pitch perfect. The pacing allows for meaning to arrive in sinister, suspenseful ways. The direction drives everything forward, allowing lapses in information to be filled in later (and to much greater effect). While it might seem like a story centered on a group of marauding thieves against a pair of equally dangerous policemen, the truth is far more spellbinding. Instead, Marchal sets up a dynamic between his two lead and then lets the rest of the movie bounce off them.

As Vrinks, Auteuil is brilliant at playing the clever con artist conformist. He may seem passive and able to (mostly) play by the rules, but his character can be just as nasty as the next guy. It's not an outward evil. Auteuil doesn't raise an eyebrow or twirl a metaphysical moustache. Instead, he lets his piercing eyes do all the implying. This is crucial in moments where Vrinks must hide his hand less others around him take advantage. Even in the depths of despair and anguish, there is a glint that gives off a world of wanton subtext. It arrives often - when he visits the injured hooker which starts the plot rolling, when he watches an unwelcome Klein join him at a funeral podium - and when it does, we get the message. Along with a group of faithful allies who would do almost anything for him, Vrinks comes across as his adversary's antithetical equal.

As for Depardieu, he makes an excellent cad. His character is really nothing more than a coward who relies on his connections and ability to blackmail as a means of making the grade. Even more disturbing is the notion that he has his own duty bound people who are more than happy to help him, lackeys that look beyond the typical grift and graft and actually want to participate in his blatant disregard of the law. With his hulking physique and silent giant demeanor, he makes for a devastating villain. Again, one of the best things about 36th Precinct is how Marchal switches focus from the criminals to their captures. We expect the bad guys to be bad (and they don’t disappoint). To see both Vrinks and Klein walk the thin blue line is another matter all together.

36th Precinct also amazes in the details. Our opening introduction to this particular part of the criminal world begins with the aforementioned brutal beating of an aging prostitute. When we see her again (she is a long time friend of Vrinks) her wounds are disturbing. Similarly a cop named Titi stands out, both for his undying loyalty to “right” but also for how he never hides his emotions. Even in the most dangerous of circumstances, he will not curb his simmering rage/regret. Along the way, we come across the typical rogue’s gallery of bald brutes, slick Euro-trash, hardened prostitutes, black trench coated gunmen, and evil ex-cons. We soon come to realize that nothing in this particular dynamic is truly black or white. Sure, we’ve seen this before, the notion of policeman being as threatening and wicked as the ones they apprehend playing a major role in the post-modern movement. But with 36th Precinct, the difference is approach. Casting aside the gratuitous and the gritty, Marcel goes for the majestic – and succeeds.

On many levels this movie reminds one of the recent Korean serial killer effort I Saw the Devil. There, a policeman struggles with his own sense of ethical duty when a clearly deranged murderer targets a loved one. His response, while not unusual, is presented in a manner that almost singlehandedly recalibrates the entire horror subgenre. In the same vein, 36th Precinct predicates its approach on certain cinematic givens. But instead of embracing them or trying to find a way around them, Marcel merely breaks out the beautiful, baroque frames and highlights each and every slick, substantive canvas. Between the well staged action sequences and the slow burn confrontations, this movie plays like a recognizable bit of bravado. Once you get past the chest pounding and the machismo, you wind up with a near masterpiece, a stellar work of cop operatics.

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