Asylum (I Want To Be a Gangster)
Director - Olivier Chateau
Cast - Julien Courbey, Jean-Marie Lamour
Country of Origin - France
Discs - 1
Distributor - Synapse
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
Date - 02/01/13
The Film: 2/5
Much like Henry Hill before him, all young Jack (Julien Courbey) ever wanted to be was a gangster, just like the ones he used to admire in the movies. But the work he's getting as a low-level street thug while running a back room Russian roulette game with his partner (Abel Jafri) on the side just isn't cutting the proverbial frommage. When one of their innocent-seeming marks turns out to be a drug courier for a powerful mob boss (Jacques Frantz) Jack is forced to commit a murder for the boss so the score can be settled. As it turns out that mobster was really trying to con Jack into offing a more powerful and deadly mobster (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) in order to remove some very irritating competition. For revenge Jack betrays the boss who hired him to the bigger one and is accepted into the gang's numbers, but only after passing an initiation that involves getting shot at along with three others by a blindfolded henchman and being the sole survivor. With his dreams of becoming a big shot gangster now firmly within his reach Jack takes on the boss' bookish nephew as an assistant. While waiting to conduct a narcotics deal the nephew asks Jack to teach him how to pull a robbery and in the process accidentally shoots himself attempting to do a gun twirl while said gun happens to be loaded. It's the end of the road this time for our anti-hero as Jack is taken out to an isolated forest by two of the boss' top henchmen and chained to a tree without access to food or water. Left to his own devices Jack manages to survive - barely - for nearly three weeks with little human company save for a sadistic caretaker (Frederic Saurel) who forces the captive man to indulge him in some mind games as amusement. Malnourished and slowly succumbing to paranoia and savagery Jack must battle the dark forces that dwell in the forest and within his soul if he is to escape with nothing but the rest of his life.
Imported gangster movies are officially beginning to bore me. Asylum, or if you prefer to use its reality show-sounding original I Want to Be a Gangster don't let me stop you, attempts to inject a little creative juice into the moribund movie genre by grafting onto the standard underworld plot a tale of wilderness survival that is nowhere near as harrowing and suspenseful as it should be. Newbie feature director Olivier Chateau (reverse the names and you have a type of wine) is so desperate to give his first movie a unique style with a pitch black sense of humor to compliment it but he completely fails on all fronts. Jack is such a loathsome character that you never really care about him or if he will get out of his predicament. From the very beginning Chateau never presents his unlikely hero as a person worthy of our sympathy, which can only mean that the director wasn't paying full attention to those classic crime and suspense films he wishes his meaningless little flick could stand in the company of for all time. The concept of chaining a person by their leg to an immovable object goes far back before the first Saw movie was released but clearly that is the movie the forest survival part of the plot that consumes the second and third acts of Asylum seems the most indebted to. The first half-hour of the film has a little potential as we are introduced to Jack and watch as he manages to fuck up royally almost every time he is given a golden opportunity to be the gangster he always dreamed of becoming and escape through sheer dumb luck. He doesn't project intelligence or charisma and spending an extended amount of time in his presence is comparable to taking a cross country bus trip while being forced to sit next to some wannabe street thug who learned how to dress and act the part from watching too many movies and television programs, much like Jack himself. The subplot about Jack being manipulated into killing a competing crime boss by another could have served as the launch pad for a violent dark comedy in the vein of the Coen brothers or Guy Ritchie, but once the story moves to the woods any and all potential for Asylum to become an enjoyable movie I would highly recommend goes right out the window.
Despite opening with a quote from Charles Darwin about man is the most advanced on Earth (or as they say en Francais, "L'homme est l'animal le plus developpe sur terre"), Chateau can barely muster enough creative energy to make his movie pretentious. The moment Jack is chained to the tree and left to die the plot comes to a dead stop and we're treated to endless scenes of this pathetic wannabe sitting around, eating grub worms, and talking to himself. The only tension that arises on occasion is due to the presence of a vicious dog that doesn't mind chowing down on a little dead human flesh if the mood strikes, but even that doesn't put you on edge because we've seen that old dog trick done before in cinema and better. There is a running gag that the boss has spies lurking in the area to keep tabs on, and every so often torment, Jack but it lacks serious pay-off. At this point in the story the only thing that kept me from nodding off was the droning music score by some outfit called Signalflow (don't ask me) and a mild smattering of action in the final moments, all leading up to a ridiculous twist ending that almost made me want to use this DVD as a projectile weapon to throw at a cat. The better angels of my nature prevailed, but this movie still blows.
Director Chateau intentionally shot his $4,000 movie with an eye toward giving the print a grainy, sepia-toned post-production wash presumably for artistic reasons. Sad to say but when presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen on a high quality DVD transfer the picture looks absolutely horrid. Asylum has the look of an elaborate home movie but much lower in overall quality; Sam Raimi and his pals made better-looking Super 8 short films back in the 70's and even today they still look better than Asylum. If there is an upside to this lousy picture is that you get the feeling you're watching a real movie, because Chateau has made something that is anything but. The French 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround audio track fares better with solid volume levels for the mush-mouthed dialogue and the annoying soundtrack. English subtitles are included, as if they actually mattered.
Synapse has scraped together some decent extras for this release. "The Making of I Want to Be a Gangster" (19 minutes) is a brief but in-depth look behind the scenes of the production with cast and crew interviews. Nothing surprising but worth a watch. Chateau is on hand to introduce an early short film of his about a lonely rabbit called "Homer" (9 minutes) that gives a nice demonstration of his growing skill in narrative filmmaking. Wrapping things up is a two-minute promotional trailer for Asylum under the I Want to Be a Gangster title.
Asylum is a dreadful and boringly derivative excuse for a cross-genre filmmaking exercise with uninteresting characters, a plot that goes nowhere fast, and absolutely no violent content to justify its existence in the very least. Synapse has included a few good extras with this release but the intentionally subpar video and audio quality does this lackluster film any favors. If this is what the Quentin Tarantino rip-off artists have come to then for the love of all that is sacred they need to stop it already.