Set in the arena of professional auto racing and designed to celebrate the pursuit of speed, pic takes a long time to get anywhere. Title character's built-in recognition in French-lingo markets, plus Luc Besson's involvement as co-writer and behind-the-scenes producer, suggested pic would burn rubber out of the gate on wide release.

Though it’s set in the arena of professional auto racing and designed to celebrate the pursuit of speed, “Michel Vaillant” takes a long time to get anywhere. Title character’s built-in recognition in French-lingo markets, plus Luc Besson’s hands-on involvement as co-writer and behind-the-scenes producer, suggested pic would burn rubber out of the gate on wide release Nov. 19. But it’s hard to say whether there are enough adolescent boys and nostalgic adults to keep B.O. engines revving on a venture that rises above adequate in only a few places.

Family friendly but overlong adventure pic is centered on a serene young man who brings honor to the family firm as an outstanding race car driver. Fictional character first appeared in 1957 and has since been featured in 64 hardcover comic books, with sales reportedly exceeding 20 million copies.

Besson, who spearheaded the project with his EuropaCorp partner, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam, has a knack for intuiting what large segs of the moviegoing public want to see. Per production notes, Jean Graton, who created the character, and his son Philippe, who’s overseen the books since 1994, spent two ultimately fruitless years in negotiations with (unnamed) American producers who were unfamiliar with Vaillant but impressed by the comic books’ track record of sales the past 40 years.

Sticking with Euro talent was no doubt the right choice for this material. However, despite some nifty cockpit p.o.v. footage, and lensing of the protag’s car racing alongside actual competitors in the 24-hour Le Mans race, pic’s narrative is clunky in conception.

For 25 years, two rival groups have duked it out using high-performance automobiles the way Judah and Messala used chariots in “Ben-Hur”: Team Leader, characterized by cheating and bad sportsmanship, and the upright and true Team Vaillante . Should Michel (poised, handsome Sagamore Stevenin, from “Romance”) compete at Le Mans, even though his mom (Beatrice Agenin) has had a nightmare in which he and his car go up in flames?

Nice guy Michel makes complete integrity look both easy and admirable. His father, Henri (Jean-Pierre Cassel), builds race cars; Henri’s older son, Jean-Pierre (Philippe Bas), manages the team; and Michel does the driving with his inseparable American friend, Steve Warson (Peter Youngblood Hills), and Irishman David Dougherty (Scott Thrun).

Meanwhile, five years after her father’s death, beautiful but hard-nosed bitch Ruth Wong (Lisa Barbuscia) announces that Team Leader is back and will compete at Le Mans. Her bosom buddy, Odessa (Jeanne Mauran), is always game for a bit of sabotage when she’s not busy torturing a butterfly or placing her hand meaningfully on Miss Wong’s bare shoulder. Leader’s main driver, Bob Cramer (Francois Levantal) looks like a bad guy and — whoa! — it turns out he is.

When David dies in a fiery crash, Michel and Jean-Pierre agree to let David’s lovely girlfriend, Julie Wood (Diane Kruger), inherit his slot behind the wheel. Then Miss Wong forces a Faustian bargain onto Michel.

Helmer Louis-Pascal Couvelaire’s second pic follows the polished (but commercially negligible) trucks-in-the-desert thriller, “Sweat” (2002). Couvelaire is an award-winning vet of some 400 commercials, which is crystal clear from his flamboyant visuals and high percentage of posed, unspontaneous perfs. Settings and camera angles impress, but story is just too basic and silly to dazzle.

Narrative is faithful to the comic book and graphic-novel conventions; however, it also draws its look from commercials for cars, coffee and perfume, plus lavishly staged music videos. Many young viewers may crave this, but most of the over-groomed visuals and mundane dialogue will strike older auds as hackneyed and stiff.

Given the flat-footed dialogue — which interjects English into French with varying success — thesping ranges from surprisingly deft (Stevenin, Kruger) to cardboard cutouts (Youngblood Hills, Barbuscia). Effortlessly riveting “Roberto Succo” star Stefano Cassetti is given zilch to do.

Musical score will almost certainly please the same folks who enjoy the movie and exasperate those who don’t. Sound design puts viewers in the driver’s seat.

Michel Vaillant

France

Production

A EuropaCorp Distribution release of a EuropaCorp, TF1 Films Prod., The Prod production. (International sales: EuropaCorp, Paris.) Produced by Pierre-Ange Le Pogam. Executive producer, Maurice Illouaz. Directed by Louis-Pascal Couvelaire. Screenplay, Luc Besson, Gilles Malencon, based on the comic book character created by Jean and Philippe Graton.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Michel Abramowicz; editor, Herve Schneid; music, Archive ; production designer, Jimmy Vansteenkiste; costume designer, Martine Rapin; sound (Dolby), Dominique Lacour, Vincent Arnardi; stunt driving, Equipe Dams; stunt driving co-ordinator, Michel Julienne; second unit director, Ivan Rousseau; second unit camera, Charlet Recors; assistant director, Thierry Mauvoisin; casting, Winnie Calissoni, Lucinda Syson. Reviewed at Elysees-Biarritz screening room, Paris, Nov. 12, 2003. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Michel Vaillant - Sagamore Stevenin Steve Warson - Peter Youngblood Hills Julie Wood - Diane Kruger Henri Vaillant - Jean-Pierre Cassel Jean-Pierre Vaillant - Philippe Bas Ruth Wong - Lisa Barbuscia David Dougherty - Scott Thrun Michel's Mom - Beatrice Agenin Odessa - Jeanne Mauran Bob Cramer - Francois Levantal
With: Philippe Lellouche, Stephane Metzger, Agathe De La Boulaye, Stefano Cassetti. (French, English dialogue)

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