It’s a small step from stealing cherries to committing acts of extreme violence for two youngsters in “A Gang Story,” the latest crimer from Gallic cop-turned-helmer Olivier Marchal (“MR 73”). Slickly assembled but often derivative, pic fuses the 1970s-set exploits of real-life gangster Edmond Vidal’s mob with a contempo and largely fictional storyline in which the gray-haired protags look back and tie up some loose ends — in typically brutal fashion. The Nov. 30 local release stands at a respectable if far-from-record-breaking $7.8 million, with the Weinstein Co. reportedly eyeing Stateside rights.
After three pics involving cops (“Gangsters,” “36 Quai des Orfevres” and “MR 73,” the latter two with Daniel Auteuil) and a hit TV series about four renegade Hauts-de-Seine policemen (“Braquo”), the former flatfoot and occasional actor here tackles his first crime story in which the p.o.v. shifts resolutely to that of the bad guys.
“A Gang Story” is ambitiously mounted, though much of its grandeur derives from scenes that are clearly modeled on famous predecessors. This is certainly true of the first setpiece, a boisterously celebrated Roma baptism at the mansion of sixtysomething ex-con Edmond Vidal (Gerard Lanvin) that recalls the extended wedding sequence in “The Godfather” (a hanged dog later offers a variation on Coppola’s famous horse-head scene).
The baptismal feast introduces most of the characters and relationships in broad but effective brushstrokes, including Edmond’s long-suffering wife, Janou (Valeria Cavalli), who spent more than a year in jail for him. She just wants to live an ordinary life now, and Vidal — often referred to as Momon — seems content to follow her lead if it weren’t for his childhood friend, Serge (Tcheky Karyo).
As shown in flashbacks that take up about half of the pic’s running time, Momon, from a Roma trailer park, and his French classmate Serge grew up together and were first arrested and thrown into jail in 1964, when they stole a crate of cherries. This youthful bonding experience had the unfortunate effect of creating an us-vs.-them dynamic with the police. The young Momon (Dimitri Storoge) and Serge (Olivier Chantreau) subsequently became the leaders of a gang that staged a series of spectacularly violent holdups in the Lyon area — hence the pic’s French moniker — before they were finally arrested and locked away in 1974.
Screenplay by the helmer and Edgar Marie, and “freely inspired” by Vidal’s memoirs, has problems balancing its desire to be both a rousing shoot-’em-up and a slower character-driven piece; 2008’s “Mesrine” diptych fared better in this regard.
“Gang’s” robberies, shown in generic, mayhem-chic montage sequences, is almost entirely limited to the past — a notable exception being old Serge’s hyper-violent jailbreak, which does not involve Momon — while the more contemplative moments all fall to Lanvin as the older Vidal, essentially creating two distinct narratives that fail to coalesce into a single story.
The desaturated look of the scenes with the younger Momon further underlines the gap, while the fact that the younger thesps look nothing like their older counterparts doesn’t help, though acting is generally strong, with Lavin and Karyo delivering the required gravitas. As in all Marchal films, the tech package is topnotch.