Down-and-dirty politics at Paris police headquarters lead to extremely dark places in “36 Quai des Orfevres,” a sort of modern “The Count of Monte Cristo” by way of Michael Mann’s “Heat.” Stylish, relentlessly moody cop saga benefits from crackerjack scripting, intriguing motivations and excellent performances. International auds should gladly surrender their time for a gritty, intricate tale whose seeming loose ends are cauterized with elegance and heft. Local notices have been glowing, with biz brisk since release Nov. 24.
Senior police officer Robert Mancini (Andre Dussollier) is about to retire and there are two equally qualified candidates who could take his place: Leo Vrinks (Daniel Auteuil) and Denis Klein (Gerard Depardieu), each in charge of an important plainclothes division. In recent months, a gang has been attacking armored cars in and around Paris and killing the drivers. Mancini says whoever nails the perps before they attack again will get his job.
Leo and Denis were once friends, but Denis’ ambition — and immoderate drinking — has created a rift. Both men are married, have nice homes, and are driven by their work.
Leo is nuts about his wife, Camille (Valeria Golino), and their 11-year-old daughter, Lola (Solene Biasch). He spares Camille the details of his sometimes unsavory job. But one detail — and Leo’s code of honor — will ricochet through both their lives for years to come, as Denis sees an unscrupulous way to railroad his rival.
Drawing heavily on actual events of the mid-’80s, former cop Olivier Marchal has fashioned a pic that, with its bloody shootouts and heartbreaking betrayals, depicts police work as a risky profession in which loyalty and experience can sometimes, though not always, trump bad luck. Every action sequence is more than matched by the bloodless, chess-like maneuvering of foes and allies, setting the bar high for subsequent Gallic police dramas.
As both men cope with tragedy, Auteuil gets way more screen time and makes the most of it. But Depardieu’s haunting perf — arguably one of his best ever — is a mantle of sorrow kept at bay by the perceived compensations of power.
Supporting cast is aces, with special praise for Francis Renaud and Catherine Marchal as youngish cops who, like their boss Leo, find it nearly impossible to compromise their integrity. Roschdy Zem shines as an informer who’s no dope.
Slick, evocative widescreen lensing emphasizes steely blues and grays, and extreme close-ups of aging thesps are warts and all (and then some). Pic’s carpet of ominous music falls just short of going over the top.