Gallic gangster actioner fuses many disparate generic and stylistic conventions, but, although script by co-star Samy Naceri’s brother was purportedly pared down from several hundred pages, it still bears the weight of its pretensions. Helmer Manuel Boursinhac brandishes violent set pieces in a flurry of homages that pulls hybrid meta-noir pic in different directions. “The Code,” which opened in France in October 2002 and already premed on DVD, is skedded for a limited Feb. 13 bi-coastal release, TriStar and Goldwyn apparently banking on pic’s “Sopranos”-like alternation between ethnic family emotionalism and sudden brutality to seduce bigscreen auds.
Dris (Samuel Le Bihan) returns to his old Parisian stomping ground after a four-year stretch in prison. Determined to walk the straight and narrow with faithful blond wife Lise (Marie Guillard), he takes a job in a produce warehouse. But cousin/best pal Yanis (Samy Naceri) wants Dris rejoin the old gang, which welcomes him with open-mouthed kisses and sincere outpourings of affection.
Soon Dris is surrounded by a veritable ethnic rainbow of crooks and their families. But even the Gypsy blandishments of sultry ex-girlfriend Nina (Clotilde Courau), who flamboyantly removes a fortune in diamonds from her crotch, cannot sway the stalwart Dris.
However, when Dris defends his cocky young nephew Mel (David Saracino) against a rival gangster, the die is cast.
Yanis ropes Dris into participating in a major heist, which goes off without a hitch. But attendant crosses and double-crosses by peripheral characters and a master villain (a magnificently cold, genuinely Melvillean Michel Duchaussoy) soon decimate the cast in a series of elaborately choreographed, atmospheric rubouts.
Familiar scenes from decades of classic gangster films abound, scripter Bibi Naceri inducing an orgy of deja vu by channeling Scorsese, Melville, Tarantino, Wellman and Coppola indiscriminately.
Boursinhac, in his sophomore feature outing after 1998’s “Un Pur Moment de Rock ‘n Roll,” infuses action scenes with nervous energy, but is constantly detoured by the conflicting tendencies of his multi-derivative script. Titular “code” of honor among thieves, promoted as the lynchpin of the narrative, finally enters so sporadically and clumsily as to negate itself.
Nothing evolves organically. Plus the homoerotic dimension of the film is simultaneously loudly proclaimed and vehemently denied (“They’ll think we’re fags!” says one gang member after planting a big one on Le Bihan’s lips).
Similarly, the classic spiraling-tragedy structure of Dris’ fall from grace is continually sabotaged by the desire to do a multi-stranded “Godfather”-type group portrait, involving huge emotional scenes that tend to sideline rather than center-stage the main characters.
Thesping is competent but actors lack the authority to fill in script’s many blanks. Thierry “Titi” Robin’s Spanish-heavy Gypsy score plusses “Code” immeasurably, but elegant lensing by Kevin Jewison distances viewer further from pic’s oft-advertised but never-delivered emotionalism.