The Sunday Review: the Adjustment Bureau and l’Immortel

by Siôn Simon

L’Immortel is set in Marseille. It stars Jean Reno, was produced by Luc Besson and directed by Richard Berry. Released in France a year ago this month, it was made available for rent on UK iTunes this week.

I watched it because it is set in Marseille, a city I have known my whole life and about which I feel strongly. I thought it would be nice, on a sub-zero March evening in Birmingham, to see the sunshine and hear the accent.

You don’t hear the accent. There is one character (the most brutal in this violent film) who speaks with a strong Marseille twang. Everybody else could be from anywhere. This is the most interesting thing about the film. In any British and most American flicks, it would be inconceivable. Imagine a gritty mafia revenge drama set in Glasgow (the Marseille accent is even more distinctive than the Glaswegian) in which every character sounds like they’re from the Hampshire suburbs. Wouldn’t happen, and you couldn’t watch it if it did.

The exteriors in 22 bullets (L’Immortel’s English title) are nice, but clichéd. The widowed-by-the-mafia woman flic in charge of the investigation lives right under the arches in the Vallon des Auffes, which features in the opening frame of the French Connection and countless other Marseille films. Somehow they resisted giving us its fishing boats, but I bet it was close at the meeting.

The film opens, and Jean Reno’s retired gangster paceri is shot 22 times, in the underground car park right in the middle of the Vieux Port. Most of the film was shot in Avignon and Paris. The location scout deserves even fewer awards than everyone else on the film.

The plot is Shane meets Death Wish, façon marseillaise. Jean Reno plays Leon, as usual. The tag line is le sang versé ne sèche jamais (spilled blood never dries). It won the 2011 Gerard du cinema for the worst film of the year, possibly the decade. Which is probably a bit harsh, but only a bit. It did quite good business at home and abroad, particularly in Russia and Greece. They play O lucevan le stelle in the background quite a lot, which is a relief.

There is more to the ancient city of Marseille than bouillabaisse and gangsters. Including things you wouldn’t think of: it is, for example, the city of both Eric Cantona and Zinedine Zidane. But if French film-makers are going to do “gangster Marseille”, they really should do it better than this.

Whereas, if L’Immortel’s failure was to rise above a single one of the clichés in a tired genre, then the Adjustment Bureau – flogging an equally careworn horse (twinkly romcom) – made the opposite mistake. It tried so hard to break the mould that it signed up to a central, supernatural, conceit so utterly preposterous that it spoiled the film.

Which is a real shame, because the film’s core – Matt Damon and to a lesser extent Emily Blunt – was strong enough to have risen above the genre. It didn’t need the ridiculous plot device, in which grey, Taylorist angel-figures (at which Terence Stamp camply hams it up to gamest effect) heavy-handedly intervene to compel unpredictable humans to stick to the pre-destined “plan”.

It is a magnetically charming performance by Damon, one of the most likeable actors in Hollywood, whose on-screen relationship with Emily Blunt has real watchability and fizz. A normal romcom script device (being chased by her gangster husband; his crazy ex-girlfriend is trying to kill her; she left her shoes in his apartment, and now they are being pursued by desperate criminals who had secretly implanted stolen microfilm in the heel; fate keeps conspiring to make it appear that he doesn’t love her, when we know that he does) was all that it needed.

Sadly, the actual script – by director George Nolfi, loosely adapted from a short story by Philip K. Dick – is ludicrous. Nor are the “supernatural plan” elements, which start quietly but end fortissimo, merely irritating in their absurdity, which might have been forgivable. They are seriously boring in their banality, which is not. They ruin a film which otherwise had the ingredients of excellence.

The official tagline here, somewhat less lyrical than L’immortel’s, is “Bourne meets Inception”. That is a very accurate summation. The Bourne films are genre classics. Inception is terrible, unwatchable nonsense.

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