36 features two of France's biggest male stars, Auteuil and Depardieu, squaring off in an epic tale of betrayal and revenge. The Hollywood pitch would go something like, "Heat meets The Count Of Monte Cristo".
Writer-director Olivier Marchal ain't no Michael Mann. But he also isn't some film-school whizkid hung up on flashy camera angles. Marchal served as a policeman in the anti-terrorist unit and drew on the experience for 36. And in this twilight world the moral boundaries between law enforcers and criminals are blurred; Klein dismissing the official ethics code as something "I wiped my ass with years ago."
Both cops are married, both have spacious houses and, crucially, both are over-obsessed with work. Although Vrinks is established as the more sympathetic individual, popular with his men and concerned for an assaulted female informer, his interrogation methods are vicious. Early on, he and his colleagues abduct and strip a suspect and threaten him at gunpoint, before dumping the victim in a woodland ditch.
Marchal establishes an effective contrast between contemplative moments and propulsive action sequences - notably a brutally swift freeway robbery and a disastrous police warehouse raid. Professional rivalries, ambitions and power struggles between various units threaten the lives of the cops and a new generation of heavily-armed felons have absolutely no compunction about killing those blocking their way. Ultimately, it's a policewoman (Marchal's wife Catherine) who has the guts to stand up to Klein's bullying tactics.
There's a considerable pleasure in watching the less-is-more leads. Those who've seen Hidden won't be surprised by Auteuil's ability to convey a burning intensity beneath a watchful facade, but the physically imposing Depardieu, prone in other roles to ill-disciplined over-acting, here matches his co-star's restraint, and his Klein becomes a tragically lonely figure, consumed by ambition, bitterness and self-loathing.
Fusing the real and the mythical, Marchal's film is an accomplished and absorbing policier, with rich performances from its stars.
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