Despite a title and subject similar to Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 masterwork “The Army of Shadows,” Gallic wartime fresco “The Army of Crime” is a less thrilling and more academic take on the doomed efforts of the French Resistance. Based on the actual plights of a WWII underground immigrant brigade, vet helmer Robert Guediguian’s lengthy period yarn features a wide array of characters filmed with his habitual simpatico eye, but loses the dramatic thread in too many plots, too little action and not enough originality. Imposing “Army” should score local victories, but overseas campaigns will be limited to mere surgical strikes.
Widely popular in French WWII lore and previously tackled by the 1976 film “L’Affiche rouge,” the FTP-MOI was a Parisian-based branch of the Resistance whose members were Communist immigrants hailing from all parts of Europe. When 10 of its top fighters were executed in early 1944, the Vichy regime plastered a now legendary red-colored poster around Paris that depicted the men as terrorists and bore the slogan “Liberators? The Liberation, by the Army of Crime.”
Beginning with the group’s final paddy wagon ride to the firing range and then cutting to two-plus hours of backstory, the script initially hops between the four protags until uniting them about halfway through. Although such a structure allows the filmmakers to painstakingly construct the trajectory of each character, it severely hinders the flow of the narrative and fails to make the ongoing threat of capture, torture and death seem either real or suspenseful.
The plot focuses primarily on the band’s Armenian-born leader, Missak Manouchian (played by French-Armenian actor Simon Abkarian), who’s first arrested and then released from prison while his fighting, charmer g.f. (Virginie Ledoyen) watches in disbelief: A seductive, soft-spoken poet with strong political convictions but little desire to draw blood, Missak soon takes up the reigns of a movement whose principal activities entail distributing pamphlets and slaying Nazis in the street.
He finds a pair of worthy acolytes in two young Jewish troublemakers, Marxist bomb-rigger Thomas (Gregory Leprince-Ringuet) and athletic sharpshooter Marcel (Robinson Stevenin). As their collected killings get increasingly gruesome, the SS-administered police begin to crack down on their network, using a local detective (played by Guediguian regular Jean-Pierre Darroussin) to snuff out those in charge.
Had the story concentrated merely on Missak and his two cohorts, it might have been engaging in the way of Melville’s film, which limited the action to Lino Ventura’s harrowing p.o.v. But its cumbersome attempt to follow 18 characters (including the three protags’ different friends and family members) makes for too many minor plots, which are handled in quick succession with little cinematic intensity.
What Guediguian gets right is the eerie mood of Vichy-era France, where most of the population continued life as usual while their fellow countrymen were being shipped off to Auschwitz or burned alive at their local police station. Well-chosen exteriors, filmed in warm hues by Pierre Milon (“The Class”), make for an oddly tranquil atmosphere interrupted by sudden surges of violence, recalling moments from the director’s Marseilles-set thrillers “The Town Is Quiet” and “Lady Jane.”
Thesps are so many and so scattered that no performance is a standout, though Leprince-Ringuet (“Love Songs”) gives his character some pizzazz.
Alexandre Desplat’s intrusive score, plus a good deal of additional Bach and Mozart, winds up sucking the energy from certain pivotal scenes.