A two-pronged police procedural set in the French Alps in winter, “The Crimson Rivers” skimps on originality but pulls out the stops on the visual side. Tale of two police investigators — one seasoned, one young — whose separate but equally creepy investigations dovetail, makes for a story-driven action-thriller that’s adequately entertaining but not particularly memorable. Pic pre-sold nicely in this year’s Cannes market, covering its 100 million franc ($14 million) budget on the basis of a 10-minute show reel, and the massive popularity of star Jean Reno should prove a local draw. But finished effort seems unlikely to take any offshore territory by storm, even though it’s certain to perform better than helmer Mathieu Kassovitz’s previous pic, the 1997 dud “Assassin(s).”
Helmer’s fourth feature, following “Metisse,” “Hate” and “Assassin(s),” is his first to be adapted from another writer’s source material, a popular 1998 novel that has been streamlined to a point where the two main characters have almost no backstory. Bottom line, however, is that much of what the film is trying to do in terms of suspense, atmosphere, shock value and old-cop/young-cop dynamics, David Fincher’s “Seven” did first and far better.
Pierre Niemans (Reno), a legendary and permanently gruff criminologist, travels well out of his jurisdiction to investigate a ritual murder high in the Alps. The mutilated body of a staffer from an elite academy has been found strangled and hanging from a steep, snow-covered slope. Autopsy reveals the victim’s hands were chopped off and his eyes scooped out while he was still alive.
There’s a clan-like, tight-lipped and slightly inbred atmosphere at the venerable old college, where physical and mental effort are valued to a degree that’s both inspiring and suspicious. A taciturn, no-nonsense guy, Niemans relies on his gut instincts but accepts the help of Fanny (Nadia Fares), a solitary young woman who studies glaciers and monitors snow conditions to keep the intellectual enclave safe from avalanches.
When other elaborately mutilated bodies are discovered, Niemans begins to suspect that the murderer is not so much a serial killer as an entity with a message to communicate.
Meanwhile, in another town roughly 150 miles away, hip young police lieutenant Max Kerkerian (Vincent Cassel) is called upon to investigate the desecration of a tomb containing a 10-year-old girl who died in 1982. Max pays a visit to the dead girl’s morbid mother (Dominique Sanda, in a lugubrious cameo) which leads him to a mountain shack where he casually, almost accidentally, teams up with Niemans.
The two men are drawn deeper and deeper into a case whose key elements are as strange and morally repellent as they are far-fetched. As deep dark secrets go, pic’s denouement is a razzle-dazzle CGI doozy; but what should be emotionally devastating doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny.
That said, pic is muscular in its execution and not for the squeamish. On the physical side, Cassel shines in a faintly gratuitous martial arts fight (that left the actor with a broken nose), and Reno and Fares impress in an eerie ice-climbing sequence. Pic’s graphic violence fits into thriller conventions, and the film also takes a sinister tilt toward the seeming supernatural.
But despite some genuine bravado in the lensing and a promising first reel or two — pic was shot almost entirely at high altitudes in freezing weather — the venture is haunted by an aura of trying too hard to be Hollywood-like while neglecting to pay proper attention to the script.
Reno’s character is written in the style of Clint Eastwood, but, though the thesp is always a pleasure to watch, he hasn’t quite earned that iconic status yet. It’s not always sufficient to walk in like you own the room and grunt a few words while looking composed yet world-weary.
Cassel is less monolithic, but can breathe only so much life into his assignment as an aspiring ace who still has a lot to learn. Fares convinces in an athletic role, until the thunderous compound finale, which inadvertently robs all the characters of their hard-earned gravitas. Bruno Coulais’ score is laid on a bit thick.