Scandinavian crime, real-life hijacking and 18th century horror -Tom Leins heads to Europe for this week’s DVD round-up.
Based on a stand-alone novel by Scandinavian crime writing’s top-dog Jo Nesbo, Headhunters (Momentum) is a slick, offbeat thriller with a knack for wrong-footing its audience.
Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie, Max Manus) is Norway’s most accomplished headhunter, but he lives well beyond his means, and steals coveted artworks to subsidise his lavish lifestyle. At just 1.68 metres tall (5’6′) Roger has something of a ‘Napoleon complex’, and attempts to retain his beautiful wife’s affections with a string of expensive gifts, the latest of which is a plush art gallery! When his wife Diana (Synnove Macody Lund) introduces Roger to Dutch former technology CEO and ex-mercenary Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones), the headhunter believes that the charismatic Greve is the perfect match for an upcoming recruiting assignment. Even better, Roger learns that the Dutchman is in possession of an extremely valuable painting by Rubens, and sets out to steal it with the help of his sleazy security specialist cohort Ove. However, Brown’s actions set in motion an increasingly bloody chain of events, and the headhunter quite literally becomes the hunted!
Anyone who has already read Nesbo’s original novel may be surprised to find that much of the novel’s (admittedly detail-heavy) exposition has been done away with, with often-curious results -especially in the case of one of the major late twists. That said, the omissions don’t detract too heavily from the overall mood of the piece, and the increasingly bloody narrative unfolds at an appealingly brisk pace. With a memorable lead performance from the undeniably odd-looking anti-hero Aksel Hennie, and a series of vivid set-pieces -not least the most arresting toilet scene since Trainspotting -Headhunters has plenty in its favour. Minor plot discrepancies aside, this is a fine example of quirky, effective storytelling from a man at the vanguard of Scandinavian crime-writing.
The Assault (Studio Canal) is a grim real-life action thriller, directed by Julien Leclercq, who previously made a splash with his evocative debut sci-fi feature Chrysalis. On 24th December 1994, four heavily armed terrorists from the Algerian Armed Islamic Group hijacked an Air France plane (Flight 8969) at Algiers’ airport, prompting the hesitant French government into action, as they dispatch special forces squad Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN) to intervene and stop the bodycount from increasing any further. As suggested by The Assault, the bloody events that followed played out live to an audience of around 20 million TV viewers over the festive period
After a promising opening half-hour, The Assault loses its way during the stodgy middle section, and doesn’t fully recapture its momentum until the film reaches its explosive finale. In essence, the mid-section fails because of its curious decision to focus on the back-stories of a small number of (possibly fictitious) characters, including SWAT officer and conflicted father Thierry (Vincent Elbaz), and overly ambitious French Interior Ministry worker Carole (Melanie Bernier). Unfortunately, neither character seems to possess a story worth telling, and the desperate attempts to crowbar a personal touch into such a stark, fact-based movie backfires. In fairness the final portion of the film is very impressive, with Leclercq demonstrating an enviable flair for action filmmaking, imbuing the proceedings with a brutal blunt-force impact. The Assault is an interesting story, well worth telling, but the director botches the project with his unconvincing attempt to give the film a heartbeat. Desperately uneven stuff.
Inspired by the 1796 gothic novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis, The Monk (Metrodome) marks German-born French director Dominik Moll’s return to filmmaking after 2005’s well-received Lemming. Although Moll dipped his toe into screenwriting waters with last year’s glossy-but-patchy cyber-thriller Black Heaven, the former Cesar award winner (for Harry, Un Ami Qui Vous Veut Du Bien [Harry, He’s Here To Help] in 2001) has kept a low profile since first coming to prominence, and The Monk is an undeniably odd project with which to reignite his career. Abandoned on the steps of a Spanish monastery as a baby, and raised in strict Capuchin fashion, Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel, Mesrine) grows up to become the most famous preacher in 17th century Madrid, attracting large crowds from all over the country, rapt by his compelling sermons. Convinced of his virtue and righteousness, Brother Ambrosio believes that he is immune to temptation, but his resolve is seriously tested when he experiences a series of disturbing encounters within the four walls of the monastery. But are they connected to the unexpected arrival of Valerio, an apprentice monk who hides his hideously disfigured face underneath a wax mask?
Despite its transgressive reputation, The Monk is neither scary not horrific enough to succeed as the twisted horror thriller it presumably perceives itself to be, and for long periods the film is pretty dull. Although the ever-watchable Cassel is a good, solid choice to play Ambrosio, in truth, the role isn’t one of his finest, and the rise ‘n’ fall storyline -and inherent psychological turmoil -can’t disguise the meandering narrative and bungled potential for truly sinister developments. Considering the track records of those involved, The Monk is a very disappointing piece of work.