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Crimson Rivers II: Angels Of The Apocalypse (2005)
Director: Olivier Dahan

review by Jonathan McCalmont

The problem with French film is that for every Nikita and Diva there's at least 36 films set in Paris where middle class couples sit around complaining about how terrible their lives are and they're forced to have affairs with other angsty middle class people who sit around all day complaining. The new millennium suggested things were changing though when a new generation of filmmakers seemed to emerge fully formed and ready to take on the laziness of the French film scene by importing values and ideas from Hong Kong and Hollywood. This produced films like Amélie and Brotherhood Of The Wolf but it also produced the little gem that was The Crimson Rivers, a tale of two unconventional French cops trailing a serial killer into a world of Nazism and eugenics. Banking on that film's success at home and abroad, it didn't seem unreasonable to make a sequel... the only problem was that the French public seemed to have moved on and critics absolutely butchered it.

Crimson Rivers II: Angels Of The Apocalypse tells the story of ageing super-cop Niemans (Jean Reno) and his former Pupil Reda (Benoit Magimel), as they try and solve a series of religious murders. Black-clad ninja monks are elaborately bumping off a small Christian sect modelled on Jesus and the 12 apostles (they share the names and jobs of this infamous band of god-botherers). It turns out that the monks work for a former Nazi (Christopher Lee) who hopes to find a religious treasure hidden inside the Maginot line (a series of elaborate fortifications built along the French and German border between the World Wars) that would allow him to communicate directly with god.

Frankly, it's easy to see why the critics hated this film. Co-written by Luc Besson, this film shows many of his traditional flaws; the characterisation is minimal and frequently stereotypical, the plot is full of holes and is basically nothing more than a way of threading together a load of set pieces. Despite the presence of a fluent French speaking Lee, the acting fails to really impress. Reno sleepwalks and, given the gulf between the personalities of Niemans in the two films, has seemingly given up any attempt at delivering a rigorous performance. However, while these flaws are more than enough to allow me to haughtily class this film as suffering from that old favourite 'style over content', there are a number of really interesting ideas at work here.

Despite falling into the trap of quick-fire editing, the action scenes are pretty good. A huge gun battle in the bowels of the Maginot line sees the air filled with tracer bullets and explosions as the two cops use their handguns to try and fend off a squad of baddies armed with heavy machineguns. There's also a scene where Reda chases a monk through houses and warehouses that must class as one of the best foot pursuits ever put onto film. Reda puffs and wheezes as he struggles to keep up with a monk who is effortlessly leaping from rooftop to rooftop and diving off of buildings. There's also one brilliant scene where Niemans follows a monk with his car only for an old pillbox to appear out of the ground and turn his car into Swiss cheese with high calibre machinegun fire.

The film also has a feel to it that is vaguely reminiscent of those 'urban exploration' sites where people explore old abandoned buildings. Like the first film, there's a real sense that the writers are showing a side of France that has largely been untapped by other writers. This isn't the historical France of wigs and funny hats or the modern France of high-rise towers and racial tension but rather the cracks in between, the hidden France. Modern France is secular and rests upon a recent history characterised by unsuccessful but heartfelt opposition to German aggression. The Crimson Rivers films explore the idea of Nazis still existing in France, a shadow of the unmentionable sin of collaboration during the Second World War and a France which might well appear secular but is still Catholic and superstitious under the surface. Crimson Rivers II even questions the place of France in Europe by having Lee's Nazi be a German diplomat in league with French politicians hoping to create a white Europe (nicely picking up on wide-scale French opposition to Turkey joining the EU). So culturally as well as physically there's a real sense of this film taking us to places that we've simply never been and yet seem familiar rather than exotic. The first film in the series showed us a university stuck in the past, and this film is set in and around the long-abandoned Maginot line that promised to defend the French people against the Germans but failed to do so comprehensively. Admittedly, this film is heavily inspired by the cod occultism of Se7en and The Ninth Gate but it manages to stay French and to adapt these tropes to fit with an interesting mining of France's past (something that Brotherhood Of The Wolf also did incredibly well).

Despite having obvious flaws this is still a film with a lot to say and a lot of ideas. Right from the beginning this film sets out to challenge everything about modern France from its filmmaking orthodoxy to its vision of Europe. There are few things here that you won't have encountered elsewhere but the creators manage to put a truly unique and truly French spin on them making you look at familiar ideas from a different perspective. The tragedy of this film is that the ideas that went into the setting and the backstory simply did not transfer into a good film. The direction, acting and screenplay fail to do the ideas any kind of justice. So, much like the first film, Crimson Rivers II is a film that is ultimately frustrating to watch, if only they'd put as much work into making a film as they did into putting together a setting they would have had something truly memorable. As it is it's well worth a look.
Crimson Rivers 2

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