The second of two Fabrice du Welz offerings this summer (the other being the Lonely Heart Killers thriller “Alleluia,” which premiered at Cannes), the blunt French policer “Colt 45” takes after its title. This sleek, well-oiled piece of action-movie machinery won’t help with the housework, it won’t pay the bills, but it looks mighty impressive when flashed before a room full of tough guys. Professionally mounted, yet too impersonal to travel much beyond Gaul, the pic serves as the vaguely Bourne-esque backstory for a highly coveted marksman whose topnotch skills put him at the center of a convoluted plot to ensure that his lethal potential isn’t squandered on a dead-end desk job.
When it comes to tactical target practice, nobody is better than low-profile firearms specialist Vincent Miles (pronounced Meel-ess), who has recruitment offers lined up after winning an international shooting competition. As played by Ymanol Perset (who broke out with the Belgian drama “Le Monde nous appartient”), Vincent is one of those stern-jawed, intense-stare types, vaguely robotic in his determination to be the best gun jockey on earth. For all practical purposes, he is a human killing machine, and though field ops holds no appeal for him, it’s clear that whoever succeeds in manipulating him will have a deadly weapon at their disposal.
Retracing well-trod territory while trying to stay one step ahead of audiences, du Welz and co-writer Fathi Beddiar have engineered a script in which their naive protagonist goes from having no personal life to being caught in the center of an elaborate police investigation with a fast-escalating body count. The idea, of course, is to force him into homicidal mode, which gives the entire film a coiled-spring feeling: It’s only a matter of time before something snaps.
Among the characters whom Vincent may or may not be able to take at face value are mentor and police commandant Christian Chavez (Gerard Lanvin), who served alongside his father; fellow super-shot Milo Cardena (rapper Joeystarr), who seems less conflicted about the whole killing thing; and Isabella (Alice Taglioni), the lone woman — and a sympathetic ally — amid this testosterone-heavy group. Everyone seems concerned for Vincent’s future, though at least one of these confidants wants to corrupt him.
Though it promises plot twists aplenty, “Colt 45” feels like the tamest and least surprising of du Welz’s features. “Vinyan,” “Calvaire” and “Alleluia” each pushed characters well past the limits of sanity as the movies seemed to be losing their own minds. Whereas those films worked because auds were pulled dragging their feet and clutching their armrests into the realm of the subconscious, “Colt 45” poses almost the opposite dynamic: We want to see Vincent get violent, so it feels almost anticlimactic when he finally does.
With a project like this, instead of playing sadistic puppetmaster, du Welz is demoted to mere technician. Like Vincent, he’s possessed of an extremely rarefied skill set, and the question is whether it will be used for legitimate purposes. This hardly feels like the right application of his talents, and yet there’s still plenty to admire, as he creates a dark, nervous atmosphere and slowly ratchets up the tension.
Cinematographer Benoit Debie revels in the grungy locations, injecting an underground obstacle course with the energy of a rave party (an analogy reinforced by composer Benjamin Shielden’s electronic score), or peering through broken glass and from behind hiding places in the disorienting, rain-drenched warehouse where the climactic confrontation goes down. The tone suggests early, gritty David Fincher — a nihilistic mental space where people die in the blink of an eye, stabbed in the throat or shot in the forehead without elevating the pic’s pulse in the slightest — without that nutso sense of anarchy that characterized either his or du Welz’s better work.