Being a field operative in the French secret service is a very cool job — except when it isn’t — in “Secret Agents.” Classy, intricate caper pic is almost too stylish for its own good as ambitious lensing, elliptical editing and aggressive score assault viewers with an energetic cocktail of international intrigue. Compelling perfs from Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, as career spies sent to Casablanca to detonate an arms dealer’s boat, do much to keep peppy proceedings watchable if only rarely altogether convincing. Action-marbled mix of duty, existential soul-searching and old-fashioned retribution could infiltrate offshore hardtops.
Sophomore outing by Frederic Schoendoerffer (“Crime Scenes,” 2000) purports to fathom the mental make-up of the men and women who take on false identities, carry nifty gear and risk their lives to advance their governments’ often sleazy objectives. France’s diplomatic and industrial ties to Africa take the place formerly occupied by the Cold War in movies of this sort. But where does one’s allegiance lie when what the government desires is morally bankrupt and higher-ups treat good agents like pawns?
Pic sustains an aura of emotional discomfort, painting a familiar yet threatening world in which skill is just part of the survival tool kit, and nothing can save one from bad timing or the wrong encounter.
With opening and closing shots calibrated to dazzle, tale gets off to an impressive start as the camera hones in on Earth from outer space, dollying in on Eugene (Charles Berling), whose ferry is about to dock in Tarifa, Spain. Sinister dudes greet him and take lethal chase. When Eugene’s corpse is returned to France, Colonel Grasset (Andre Dussollier) fishes around and locates the memory chip Eugene’s assailants did not. Thanks to the chip’s wealth of surveillance info, the French secret service now knows Geneva-based Igor Lipovsky (Serge Avedikian) is shipping weapons to Angola.
Georges Brisseau (Cassel) is summoned. With fellow agents Loic (helmer’s brother Ludovic Schoendoerffer), rookie Raymond (Sergio Peris Mencheta) and Corsican point man Tony (Eric Savin), Georges’ mission is to send a message by blowing up the gun-runner’s vessel in Moroccan waters.
After Lisa (Bellucci) gathers lots of useful info while babysitting for Lipovsky’s children, she joins Georges in Casablanca where they pose as a vacationing married couple while coordinating the explosive intervention .
Lisa makes it clear to old friend Georges that this will be her last mission because she wants to get out of the spy racket in time to have a family. Anybody who’s ever seen a movie knows this means events are about to take a turn for the worse.
Pic’s unforgiving universe of stern, knowing glances and few words depicts danger lurking everywhere, but eliminates the down time in espionage work. Operatives and rogues-for-hire have to second-, third- and fourth-guess nearly anything that moves.
Helmer never met an extreme close-up he didn’t like. Awash with a slick expediency that’s so serious it flirts with being laughable, pic is impressive but may prove too surgical for many tastes. Due to proudly aloof tone, composite effect isn’t as satisfying as a good bank heist or other secular variation on cops and robbers.
In an unusual misstep for gifted composer Bruno Coulais, much of the score is so aggressively movie-like that it overstates its case in a pic already top-heavy with formal indications.