Director - Olivier Marchal
Cast - Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu
Country of Origin - France
Discs - 1
MSRP - $19.99
Distributor - Palisades-Tartan
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
The Film: 5/5
Mysterious characters wearing motorcycle helmets cut a metal sign off a building and speed off into the night when their nocturnal activities draw the attention a pair of uniformed police officers. They make for a local bar as it’s closing, bash the lady bartender’s (Mylene Demongeot) face into the bar, and head for a rowdy party in the backroom where a bunch of seedy individuals are gathered to celebrate the departure of their friend Eddy Valence (Daniel Duval). A skinhead-looking gentleman named Titi (Francis Renaud) reads a lovely poem, a fat guy in a belly dancer’s costume wearing fake breasts dances on top of the table, and the presence of a live rat compels everyone in the room to fire their guns at the generous supply of liquor behind the bar. While all this is going on a gang of masked criminals responsible for a series of armored car heists pulls off a violent and daring daylight heist. Eddy and his friend Leo Vrinks (Daniel Auteuil) depart the festivities and head out into the early morning to begin the investigation into the robbery. The party was to celebrate Eddy’s transfer to another department. These guys are cops. They’re the good guys.
My friends, welcome one and all to the world of 36th Precinct. The acclaimed 2004 French crime drama from director Olivier Marchal (Tell No One) has finally been released on DVD in the U.S. courtesy of the Palisades Tartan label.
Chief Inspector Vrinks and Captain Valence are the leaders of the “Mob Squad”, the elite team of rough-and-tumble cops who take on the underworld of Paris every day of their lives and often employ methods that aren‘t exactly considered “by the book“. Their rivals in the department are the Detective Bureau, represented by the dogged Chief Inspector Denis Klein (Gerard Depardieu), a former friend of Vrinks who believes he stands on higher moral ground than the cops of the Mob Squad. With the police superintendent Mancini (Andre Dussollier) preparing to take a higher post within the Paris Police Department his old job is up from grabs, and the higher-ups have dictated that whoever brings the criminals responsible for the armored car heists and multiple guard deaths to justice will become the new superintendent. Vrinks couldn’t care less about the job. He just wants to get the criminal scum off the street by any means necessary. But Klein has a desire for power and is prepared to attain even if it means losing every remaining moral fiber in his being, something that Vrinks has to deal with every day. In order to track the criminals down he must walk a fine line between being a cop and becoming that which he has dedicated his life to bringing down. Pretty soon the internal war between the Mob Squad and the Detective Bureau sparked by Klein’s tragic mistake in the line of duty sets both him and Vrinks on a collision course towards their ultimate fates, and the people closest to them will be caught in the crossfire.
The movie that 36th Precinct has been compared to the most in nearly every review I’ve read about it over the years is Michael Mann’s Heat. That is mostly an apt comparison but while Mann’s film focused on the intense yet respectful rivalry between a smart but emotionally detached career criminal and the cop who has given up anything resembling a normal family life to bring him to justice, and Olivier Marchal’s 36th Precinct is more of a police-centric feature. Here the focus is on two cops who represent two sides of the same coin: Klein is the moralist who doesn’t believe in crossing the line between cop and criminal just to get the job done, and Vrinks is the foot soldier who rarely gets to see his family and must battle the city’s most dangerous criminals on a daily basis even if it means occasionally lowering to their level. Both men have home lives and spouses who are understanding about their husbands’ work to a point, but Klein’s marriage to the lovely Helene (Anne Consigny) is chilly and remote. The dichotomy between the two men is finely drawn in the story and screenplay Marchal co-wrote with Franck Mancuso, Julien Rappeneau, and Dominque Louiseau and it provides the engine that powers the narrative.
This is not your typical crime film. There are so many intriguing characters in 36th Precinct that they could sustain a long-running series like The Wire. Some of my favorites were: the aging career criminal Christo (played by the director in a brief but effective cameo); Hugo Silien (Roschdy Zem), the informant with a questionable motivation to assist Vrinks; Eve Verhagen (Catherine Marchal), the idealistic young cop who begins to question her loyalty to Klein; Victor Dragan (Jo Prestia), the Yugoslavian arms dealer who tackles cops out of windows just for kicks; and the various members of Vrinks’ team, none of whom look like smoothed-over Hollywood pretty boys but rather like real cops. They’re out of shape, look like the walking dead, and most importantly stick together like a tight-knit family.
The performance that surprised me the most was by Valeria Golino as Vrinks’ understanding wife Camille who soon finds her devotion to her husband put to the test. I don’t recall Golino ever being this good in a movie but all my memories of her were in films that seemed beneath her talents. Her character’s real purpose in the narrative isn’t made clear until midway through the film but when it happens Golino admirably rises to the occasion. And may I note that Valeria is still a world class beauty. I love the Italians.
But the key performances are by Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu as the former friends-turned-professional rivals whose compromised relationship sets the events of the film in motion. Both the characters of Vrinks and Klein are far from being knights in shining armor because of the lengths they’re willing to go to in order to achieve their objectives, but neither is without sympathetic dimensions. This is one of the finest performances of Depardieu’s career; the veteran actor always did his best work in his native France. Here in America Hollywood expects him to be a comic buffoon with a strange accent all the time. But as Denis Klein Depardieu shows great dramatic depth as the cop consumed by self-righteousness. I wasn’t familiar with the films of Auteuil before watching 36th Precinct for the first time but he definitely sold me as a powerful dramatic lead. He’s both a stoic man of action and a character of great complexity.
The film is presented in a stunning 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen picture that perfectly preserves the crisp, cool blue cinematography by Denis Rouden in all its majesty. There’s a richness of color and texture here that adds to the overall experience of the film. There are three different audio tracks to choose from: a hearty 5.1 French Dolby as well as 2.0 French and English Dolby soundtracks that are more than adequate for the task. They give strength to the sound design, dialogue scenes, and the wonderful piano-driven music score by Erwann Kermorvant and Axelle Renoir. English subtitles are also provided.
Tartan isn’t exactly known for skimping when it comes to extra features and 36th Precinct is no exception. The selection begins with “Making of 36th Precinct” an excellent in-depth documentary about the film that also explores the true life events behind the story. Director Marchal sits down for a 10-minute interview where he answers questions about his experience on the film in a flat Q&A style with the questions presented as title cards before Marchal provides his answers. It’s get to be annoying at times but Marchal makes for a fine interview subject. There are featurettes devoted to the weapons used in the film (14 minutes) and the development of the cast’s wardrobe (14 minutes). Theatrical and teaser trailers for 36th Precinct and previews for related Tartan releases The First Beautiful Thing, Outside the Law, and All That I Love round out a top-notch roster of DVD extras.
36th Precinct is an exquisitely nuanced and riveting police thriller with sharply-drawn characters that could stand nose to nose with such classics of crime cinema as Heat, To Live & Die in L.A., The Departed, The French Connection, L.A. Confidential, and Prince of the City. In telling a story of a battle of wills between two cops with differing philosophies about law enforcement director Olivier Marchal has delivered a modern classic. I couldn’t recommend this movie more