Perhaps the greatest riddle of Gallic policier “Sphinx” is that it was made in 2009 and not 1989. This very old-school suspenser — about two rogue cops infiltrating a faux-seedy underworld of kvetching criminals, neon decor and thumping techno music — is occasionally rescued by scribe-helmer Nicolas Boukhrief’s taut direction and hearty perfs by Cecile de France and Fred Testot. Otherwise, with a message that amounts to “drugs mess with your brain” and a taxing running time, pic will need more than two, three or four legs to carry it beyond France and Belgium.
In a city that looks nothing like Paris and a lot like downtown Hartford, night-patrol officers Julie (de France) and Simon (Testot) stumble upon a rabidly high rich kid (Vincent Rottiers), who shoots down their partner (Stephane Jobert) and blames the mishap on them. Since the kid is the son of a local politician and was found with a pack of fluorescent pills known as “Sphinx,” the only way the cops can clear their names is to track down the drug’s dealers.
As Julie goes undercover — cue the vulgar leather dresses and caked-on makeup — to convince a greasy club owner (Julien Boisselier) she can sell his stash, Simon is forced to test a tad too much of their product, and does some stupid things like killing a middleman or brandishing a handgun in broad daylight. Despite such snafus, their relationship grows ever more intimate and they begin to find their way toward redemption.
Beyond taking place in the kinds of discos, parking garages, basement labs and modernist villas found in throwaway cop thrillers of the ’80s and ’90s, pic bears a superficial resemblance to Gaspar Noe’s latest exercise in cinematic freebasing, “Enter the Void.” But while Noe’s work does an impressive (to the point of suspicious) job of depicting the dangers of pill-popping and the back-alley lifestyles of druggies and dealers, Boukhrief’s film never feels real or menacing enough.
That’s too bad, because certain action scenes — especially a well-paced break-in at the police precinct — are handled with impressive fluidity, though they’re not at the level of the helmer’s best work, 2004’s “Cash Truck.” If anything, it seems as if Boukhrief had tried to steer away from the muddled experimentation of his last pic, “Cortex,” toward something more commercial, but wound up with too-generic results.
De France (“A Secret”) and former TV comic Testot (“You’ll Miss Me”) manage to generate strong chemistry as two working-class victims of bureaucratic corruption, but their characters never have the smarts one would hope for, mostly functioning on pure energy and questionable instincts.
Pro tech package is backed by Nicolas Baby’s electro score, which, beyond a catchy opening melody a la Ennio Morricone, feels as standardized as everything else.