Mathieu Kassovitz, left, in “The Lookout”

Italo thesp-turned-helmer Michele Placido ("Vallanzasca") crosses the border into France for "The Lookout," a gritty cops-and-crooks caper in which the bad guys are in cahoots with a sniper.

Italo thesp-turned-helmer Michele Placido (“Vallanzasca”) crosses the border into France for “The Lookout,” a gritty cops-and-crooks caper in which the bad guys are in cahoots with a sniper. Placido brings the required steeliness to the direction of his starry cast, led by Daniel Auteuil and Mathieu Kassovitz, but he’s let down by a turducken of a script, with plotlines randomly stuffed into other plotlines until it’s an unrecognizable beast of a movie. Gallic B.O. was middling, which doesn’t bode well for the mainly Euro and Asian distribs that prebought the item.

Still most famous internationally for his breakout role in the cult 1980s TV hit “La piovra,” Placido has a pretty good track record as a director of actors. But his films continue to suffer from an undiscriminating approach to his screenplays, which are often written by others, badly developed in terms of characters and story, and in need of an overall theme or driving force beyond the natural flow of a chronologically told tale. (“La piovra” was written by one of Italy’s best screenwriters, Sandro Petraglia, who also co-penned Placido’s last solid film as a director, “Romanzo criminale.”)

The script here is from Gallic newcomers Cedric Melon and Denis Brusseaux, and their first-reel setup shows real promise: A planned heist, which a police squad led by Parisian commissioner Mattei (Auteuil) had been anticipating, ends in a rough, well-staged shootout involving an unseen sniper (Kassovitz), who offers the criminals cop-free passage to their getaway car, though one of the heavies, Nico (Luca Argentero), is hurt.

From there on, describing what happens is akin to taking a Rorschach test. A shady surgeon (Olivier Gourmet) who performs an off-the-record operation on Nico reps a narrative inkblot whose intentions are murky, though he steadily gains in prominence as the film progresses. A subplot involving a serial killer feels as if it belongs to another movie entirely, providing atmospheric hints of “The Silence of the Lambs,” but none of the psychological terror or insight. The unexpected connection that emerges between Mattei and the sniper is so hamfisted it deserves an Ed Wood Award for surprise plotting. Though cutting within scenes is often sharp, connecting the film’s two sketchily drawn halves proves an impossible task for editors Sebastien Prangere and Consuelo Catucci.

Auteuil and Kassovitz, both thesp-helmers like Placido, imbue their practical, hard-boiled characters with as much life as they can. Argentero, who also starred in Placido’s “Il grande sogno,” and Dardennes regular Gourmet, are both creepily mustachioed and shoehorned into the plot in strange, almost tenuous ways. Placido himself cameos as a seedy car repairman, while French diva Fanny Ardant makes an uncredited appearance as the world’s most glamorous spouse of a countryside garage owner.

The director’s regular lenser, Arnaldo Catinari, gives the widescreen pic a steely, color-drained look enhanced by digital shooting. Production design and costumes are smallscreen-ready and as generic as the score.

The Lookout

France-Italy-Belgium

Production

A Studiocanal (in France) release of a Babe Films, Climax Films, Filmarno production, in association with Ran Entertainment, Studiocanal, France 2 Cinema, Appaloosa Films, RTBF, Casa Kafka Pictures, Rai Cinema, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cine Plus, France Televisions. (International sales: Studiocanal, Paris.) Produced by Fabio Conversi. Directed by Michele Placido. Screenplay, Cedric Melon, Denis Brusseaux.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Arnaldo Catinari; editors, Sebastien Prangere, Consuelo Catucci; music, Nicolas Errera, Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine; production designer, Jean-Jacques Gernolle; costume designer, Virginie Montel; sound (Dolby Digital), Jean Minondo; visual effects, Def2Shoot, Dame Blanche; visual effects supervisor, Georges Demetreau; associate producers, Eric Tavitian, Jerome Rougier; line producer, Jean-Yves Asselin; assistant director, Thierry Verrier; casting, Juliette Denis. Reviewed at UGC Orient Express, Paris, Sept. 19, 2012. (In Rome Film Festival -- noncompeting.) Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Daniel Auteuil, Mathieu Kassovitz, Olivier Gourmet, Francis Renaud, Nicolas Briancon, Jerome Pouly, Violante Placido, Luca Argentero, Arly Jover, Christian Hecq, Michele Placido, Fanny Ardant. (French, Italian dialogue)

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