Source material is the “Dobermann” series, a collection of callow, slangy crime novels popular among unshaven French hipsters in the early ’80s. Author Joel Houssin has scripted a new adventure for his fictional gang of likable psychotics, led by super-antihero Dobermann — a cross between Billy the Kid and Clyde Barrow — and his deaf-mute gypsy squeeze, Nat la Gitane.
To Houssin’s urban Western, set in contemporary Paris, helmer Kounen has grafted on a comic-book sensibility — without, unlike Enki Bilal (“Tykho Moon”) or Jeunet & Caro (“The City of Lost Children”), letting his pic become a static showcase for art direction. The result comes across as bargain-basement Besson, with the volume pumped up for MTV-ers, Manga fans and “Mad Max” vid renters.
Story is childishly simple. In broad, bloody daylight, Dobermann (Vincent Cassel), Nat (Monica Bellucci) and assorted gang members stage an explosive bank heist in a high-rise Paris suburb. In effective use of split-screen, hired decoys out of “Reservoir Dogs” keep the police occupied with bogus burglaries throughout the city. Eventually, the outwitted inspector Clodarec (Patrick Rocca) and his men locate the obscenity-spewing Dobermann gang, but the outlaws easily blast their way back to a hideaway in a country junkyard.
The bravado banditry attracts the attention of Christini (Tcheky Karyo), a horrendously evil cop given to dropping hand grenades in baby cribs, torturing suspects and, in a nice touch, speaking English whenever he’s engaged in anything particularly sociopathic. (Vet French thesp Karyo hasn’t shown such over-the-top mania since his perf in Andrzej Zulawski’s 1985 “L’amour braque.”)
When Christini learns that Dobermann & Co. are snorting, smoking and partying at a fortress-like transvestite club called Jo Hell, he and scores of heavily armed cops close in for the kill. The ensuing orgy of firepower is digital Peckinpah, concluded by a Dobermann-Christini fight scene so horrific that it inspires laughter. Cannily, Kounen and Houssin ensure that most of the principals escape for a sequel.
In addition to Karyo’s Christini, pic’s deranged two-dimensional characters are played with psychopathic panache. As Moustique, a hair-trigger macho hothead, Antoine Basler gives a wild-eyed, gum-chewing perf that perfectly matches Kounen’s cartoon ambitions. Pitbull (Chick Ortega), a brainless mountain of brawn, the Abbe (Dominique Bettenfeld), a Scripture-spouting sicko dressed as a priest, and Sonia (Stephane Metzger), a ravishing transvestite hooker, round out the gang quite nicely.
Curiously, the charismatic Dobermann is the calmest, most level-headed gunslinger of the lot, allowing thesp Cassel to make further career tracks away from his dangerously memorable perf as a whacked-out tough guy in Mathieu Kassovitz’s “Hate.” As Nat, the beautiful Bonnie to Cassel’s handsome Clyde, model-turned-actress Bellucci is, appropriately enough, drop-dead stunning, although her role as mute villainess reduces her to gesturing and posing provocatively with heavy weaponry.
Given the budget, tech credits are impressive. From the animation of the opening credit crawl, which features a Doberman-headed human figure prancing around with comic menace, through the pic’s frequent explosions, missile launchings, decapitations and firefights, the digital enhancement by Paris-based Mac Guff Ligne is a convincing ad for Gallic f/x sophistication. Stunt work, as well, is laudable.
Lenser Michel Amathieu shows an expert hand at odd-angle close-ups, while editor Benedicte Brunet manages to make the bullet train of a story ride more like a roller- coaster. The samplings and rhythms of French techno ensemble Schyzomaniac, like everything else in the pic, intrude aggressively on the senses.
Just before pandemonium breaks out at Jo Hell, one of pic’s characters uses an issue of highbrow monthly Cahiers du Cinema in the manner usually reserved for catalogues in a backwoods privy. That none-too-subtle signal of revolt is, ultimately, the sole message of “Dobermann.”