The Dead List
Ever since I saw Leon, the film which made Jean Reno a star in America, I've enjoyed his performances in smaller, more arthouse European films as well as the bigger budgeted American movies. Reno is one of the few actors who can move seamlessly from one to the other, seemingly as happy in nonsense like The Da Vinci Code, Couples Retreat and Armoured as in Les visiteurs (and its sequel), The Crimson Rivers and 22 Bullets. Despite the range he displayed in these films, he is seemingly at his best with a gun in one hand and a menacing glare in his eyes.
For some reason, it's taken two years for Le premier cercle, a film with several English titles including Inside Ring, Ultimate Heist and The Dead List, to make its DVD debut in the UK. Directed by Laurent Tuel, who also came up with the story and, with Simon Moutairou and Laurent Turner, wrote the screenplay, this has Jean Reno playing an Algerian gangster, Milo Malakian which, given Reno's birth in Morocco, seems a natural piece of casting.
In the first section of the film, it's established that Malakian has long been a thorn in the side of the forces of law and order as they know he's responsible for numerous crimes but, with watertight alibis and the best lawyer money can buy, hasn't yet been convicted of a major crime. In a police shootout some time ago, one of his sons was killed, so Malakian has been grooming his other son, Anton, to be his successor, but Anton doesn't want a life of crime and would rather settle down with his girlfriend, Elodie, Milo's mother's private nurse, who lives with her family. Anton and Elodie have a strong relationship and Anton wants to settle down on a farm in the Camargue, which he is, unbeknownst to his father, in the process of buying.
A high-ranking detective, Saunier, knows Anton's desire to settle down away from the family and is doing its best to put pressure on Elodie to persuade her boyfriend to give evidence against his father and remove the main obstacle to the life he really wants with the woman he loves. Unfortunately for him, Milo knows all about this and detests Saunier for his underhand tactics and is keen to kill him, thus removing the man who knows the most about his criminal organisation and the voice of reason telling Anton there is a way out of his current situation.
Meanwhile, Milo is planning a big score, a heist which will make him, his family and his inner circle even richer, allowing him to move with increasing freedom and lessen the need for him to put himself in harm's way for future criminal enterprises. As Anton is part of his plans and both Elodie and Saunier are persuading him to 'go straight', Milo must do all he can to persuade Anton his place is within the family and eventually taking over from his father is something he must do out of honour and duty.
Although making easy money from stealing expensive cars and robbing country villas and removing the expensive artwork and selling them on the black market keeps Milo and his criminal 'family' living a life of luxury, it seems he misses a life with danger and the adrenaline rush which comes with more audacious heists. So, when taking his grandson out for the day and, following a visit to the patisserie to buy him a cake, Milo makes a brief stop in a remote area overlooking the airport, looking at over through innocuous.
There is nothing particularly original about The Dead List as there are numerous crime thrillers which feature a patriarch with a son or close adviser wanting to go straight or with a relationship of respect and hatred between the criminal mastermind and the detective wanting to bring him down. As for a gangster or serious criminal wanting one last big score before leaving a life of crime, this has been done so many times it's practically a genre cliché. This draws on all three elements, reminding me of The Godfather, Heat and so many other crime thrillers and family driven gangster films I lost count. However, it doesn't feel overly derivative, but the lack of originality in both the story arc and characters is extremely disappointing and, compared to 22 Bullets, the last Jean Reno film I watched and reviewed, this was a real letdown.
Looking a great deal more portly than I've seen him, Jean Reno is still a commanding screen presence even though there are only a couple of moments when he holds a firearm. His relationship with Anton, who is well played by Gaspard Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement, Paris, Je T'Aime, Hannibal Rising), is fairly realistic even though the actors don't have much to work with due to their characters' limitations. Sami Bouajila doesn't have enough screen time to make Saunier a particularly interesting foil for Milo and there certainly isn't the interest, tension or spark between the two as there is between Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley in Michael Mann's superb crime thriller Heat. Similarly, Vahina Giocante doesn't really have enough time to make Elodie a fully developed or overly interesting character and, though she is an extremely attractive woman, you don't really know why Anton feels so strongly for her.
Laurent Tuel clearly knows how to direct a film with a narrative arc and the main heist, which is the focus of the film and one which occupies most of the third act, is well constructed, choreographed and shot. However, as crime thrillers go, this is a disappointment, particularly as Jean Reno, despite his best efforts, is largely wasted in the lead role and isn't given the lines or scenes in which to really flex his acting muscles and show why he is such a highly regarded character actor.
When the disc loads up, you are thanked for buying the disc, an improvement over the horrendous 'You wouldn't steal a...' anti-piracy warnings, but something which still feels patronising and then skippable trailers for Stake Land and Age of Heroes. The main menu is utterly dispiriting as the bulk of the screen is taken up by a picture of Jean Reno holding a pistol and, at the top right corner, it says The Dead List and, underneath it, Play Film. That's it. No setup menu, no extra features, not even scene selection. This really makes vanilla look bland.
Laurent Tuel chose some great locations for the film, which contrast to some of the darker scenes and grim aspects of the story, with some scenes where the blue waters of the Mediterranean are in the background and, for the most part, you have sunbleached houses and blue skies. These all look extremely good due to the strong and vibrant colours and the darker scenes don't lose any definition due to the deep contrast levels.
The anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio appears to be the original/intended one, so there aren't any framing issues as there were with the UK release of 22 Bullets (which should have been 2.35:1, but wasn't). Generally, Tuel uses the full widescreen format to good effect, filling the screen with groups of people, the picturesque landscape of close-ups. This isn't anything to rival Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West for magnificent use of the full scope format, but it does add a sense of grandeur to some scenes, with the final heist looking particularly impressive.
There aren't any issues to write home about as the standard def picture is very good although there are some instances where some blacks are dark grey rather than inky but, when night time scenes are high in clarity and explosions are suitably bright and well rendered, it does everything you could want.
Strangely, and rather disappointingly for a film which has several loud scenes (one in a nightclub and the final heist), the disc only has a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track and I spent a great deal of the film wondering how much better it would sound with a full 5.1 setup with atmospherics, voices and gunshots coming from the front and rear surrounds and the subwoofer being brought into play for the scenes with thumping music and explosions.
However, the stereo track presents the dialogue very clearly and, though some of the more action oriented scenes sound a little thin and reedy, the sound effects, score and dialogue coexist without distortion. There are quite a few quiet scenes with people talking to one another, such as the church service, when Anton shows Elodie around the house in the Camargue, introducing her to the horses or when Milo is conversing with his closest friends, which are extremely clear and the surround speakers would be fairly quiet if there was a 5.1 track but, as I said, there are others which cry out for a full 5.1 surround encoding.
Alain Kremski's score is an interesting one with a variety of different instruments and a surprising just how effective some piano music can be in building tension. There are numerous scenes without any music, relying on silence or just the sounds of people moving, talking or breathing to build suspense.
The English subtitles are very good, with the white text outlined in black, so they stand out against both dark and light backgrounds. I didn't notice any spelling or grammatical errors and they tended to be quite faithful to the French dialogue.
The Dead List (or, if you prefer, Inside Ring or Ultimate Heist) is a well constructed and acted film but one which is probably too short as the 91 minute running time (on the PAL DVD) could maybe have been 30 minutes longer and allowed for greater character development and increasing the tension between Milo and Saunier before the final piece leading to a greater payoff. However, it still works as a crime thriller but will never be considered one of the great contemporary films in the genre.
I'm not sure why the disc is so utterly bare bones – I can't remember the last time I saw a new release without anything, not even scene selection, but it put me in a bad mood before the film began. This is far from great film and the disc, despite the excellent picture quality, does it no favours at all so a rental is really the only way to go.