Directed by Armenian born filmmaker Robert Guediguian, Army Of Crime has very little in common with Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, even if the packaging on this DVD release from Fox Lorber would like you to believe it does. There are some thematic links, sure, but outside of that, this deadly serious movie really deserves to stand out on its own and not be needlessly lumped in alongside the countless imitators that each new Tarantino movie seems to leave in its wake. Grim, dark and compelling, Army Of Crime is a remarkably mature film, and not one at all to delve into revenge fantasies.
Set during the Second World War, the film follows a rag-tag group made up of Europeans from various countries who have all settled in France, which, when the film begins, has been taken by the Germans. When Jewish citizens are corralled by the occupying Nazi forces, a young Polish man of Jewish descent named Marcel Rayman (Robinson Stevenin) grabs a gun when he sees his father's life in danger. He shoots down a few German soldiers and eventually finds a co-conspirator in the form of a communist named Thomas Elek (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) who is quite expert at bomb making. Their efforts come to the attention of Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian), a Russian who is attempting to organize resistance fighters in the area. Missak, who lead a happy life as a poet, saw his family slaughtered and who has no qualms about striking first because of this.
As Missak tries to take things, organizationally and militarily, to the next level, he finds he has trouble keeping some of the others in line but after some work on this he's soon in charge of a skilled group of Europeans bent on smashing the fascists bulldozing the continent before their very eyes. Unfortunately for Missak and his group, the French police are cooperating with the German occupiers and helping them figure out who is behind the rash of attacks and how to stop them.
A tense and well paced film, Army Of Crime is an interesting film for a few different reasons. First of all, the setting is one obviously ripe with intrigue and the potential for dramatic action. Politically it all seems rather charged and the very premise of a group of organized resistance fighters banding together to do damage to a much larger, tougher and seemingly unstoppable war machine is obviously going to hold our interest. What sets the film apart from other similarly themed pictures, however, is the character development and motivation in regards to Missak and his crew. These people are all fighting for the same cause, but frequently for very different reasons. Some fight for revenge, some for political reasons, some for family based reasons and others simply for the excitement. This makes the group a varied and interesting one, not simply a group of heroes cut from the same cloth but a veritable melting pot of different cultures and ideologies brought together for the same cause.
Director Guediguian's use of violence in the film never feels exploitative or unnecessary, but it does get pretty grim in spots, particularly a nasty scene involving some torture. Better this be realistic than either over exaggerated for dramatic purposes or softened up to appeal to a more mainstream audience. Torture isn't pretty, nor should it ever appear so on film and this sequence in question definitely reinforces that and delivers a fairly powerful statement. It's also interesting to see how the police and authorities in the film essentially regard the resistance fighters as terrorists and ultimately use torture tactics when they can to extract more information from suspects - you can read into this whatever modern day political comparisons you want, but the film isn't particularly subtle in this regard, though its comparisons are interesting and not all together out of place.
While not as flashy as some war films tend to be, Army Of Crime instead relies on strong direction, dedicated and believable performances and clever cinematography to build tension and tell and interesting tale. The emphasis here isn't on the action so much as it is on the people who take action. It brings to light many moral questions and conflicts and succeeds in making us think - never a bad thing, really. It's entertaining but it's also mature and thought provoking and it's done with just enough class and style to ensure it's got enough visual sense to it to remain exciting and engrossing. All in all, while it'll appeal more to the foreign film/arthouse crowd, it's still a film worth seeing for anyone with an interest in the subject matter.
Army Of Crime looks good in the 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on this DVD. Colors are subtle and frequently subdued and the film makes use of a somewhat drab color palette but this is all obviously done intentionally and the transfer replicates that nicely. Detail is generally strong and while there is some mild shimmering evident in some spots, there aren't any problems with compression artifacts worth noting nor are there any print damage issues to complain about. Skin tones look pretty natural and black levels are generally quite solid as well.
The only audio option is a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix that is in a mix of French and German languages. English subtitles are provided that are clean, clear and easy to read and free of any obvious typographical errors. Surround usage is good, though this isn't a super bombastic mix. Some of the more action intensive scenes have some good punch to them but much of the mix is front heavy and dialogue-centric. This track handles things well, however, as the levels are well balanced and there are no problems to report with hiss or distortion at all.
Aside from menu and chapter stop options, the only extras of note are a pair of interviews, the first with the film's director Robert Guediguian. Here he discusses how his growing up in Armenia shaped his views and how these views made their way into this film and how this picture is quite a personal one to him. The second interview is with cast members Simon Abkarian and Virginie Ledoyen and they rather quickly discuss their work in the film, what they enjoyed about it, what made their characters interesting to them and how they feel about the film in hindsight. Both are reasonably insightful but a commentary would have been a more than welcome addition to this disc.
A clever, suspenseful, and very well made thriller, Army Of Crime is one of those films that deserves a wider audience. The DVD release from Fox Lorber is a good one, if a bit short in the extra features department, and the movie really ought to be seen not just by fans of war movies but by anyone with an interest in smart and intelligent filmmaking. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.