There’s a delicate whiff of mothballs (but no dead air) in “The Tiger Brigades,” a dense period thriller set in crime-plagued 1912 France. Inspired by a popular French TV series of the ’70s, which was in turn inspired by Gaul’s real-life, “Untouchables”-like detective squads, pic sports a mix of idealism, duty, corruption and daunting violence in which actress Diane Kruger shines as a Russian aristocrat sympathetic to the anarchist cause. Execution and narrative are proudly old-fashioned, but sharp production design and appealing cast make the two hours fly by.
Despite the threat of the guillotine, at the start of the last century gangsters flourished in France. As a result, minister of the interior Georges Clemenceau — nicknamed “The Tiger” — created “mobile brigades,” the first cops to have automobiles (some going as fast as 25 m.p.h.) and techniques like finger-printing at their disposal.
A dozen such outfits were deployed nationwide: Pic follows dedicated Valentin (Clovis Cornillac) and his three colleagues. Elegantly thuggish Pujol (Edouard Baer) has a sardonic sense of humor and is mutually nuts about resourceful prostitute Lea (Lea Drucker); jovial Terrasson (Olivier Gourmet) represents the Tiger Brigades in boxing matches. Newcomer Achille Bianci (Stefano Accorsi), an Italian immigrant, takes their ribbing with manly fortitude.
Their current assignment, courtesy of stern-but-fair boss Faivre (Gerard Jugnot), is to track down the gang led by Jules Bonnot (Jacques Gamblin), a committed anarchist who (in real life) pulled off the first holdup with a getaway car in French history. Such new-fangled audacity, stoked by the popular press, made him Public Enemy No. 1.
Russian princess Constance Bolkonski (Kruger) is in Paris to stage the opera “Ivan the Terrible.” While her dashing but odious husband (Alexandre Medvedev) plans to sign a self-serving three-way pact with France and England, Constance is madly in love with Bonnot. The illicit lovers’ secret mission is to expose the monumental fraud behind the Russian bonds on which ordinary French people are risking their savings.
Throw in a narcotics-addicted Russian killer (Thierry Fremont), a crusading journalist Jean Jaures (Andre Marcon), a corrupt banker (Philippe Duquesne) and a host of greedy power-mongers — and the stage is set for multi-layered intrigue just a few years before the outbreak of WWI and the Russian Revolution.
Parallels between the reign of Ivan the Terrible and the rumblings afoot across Europe are clearly evoked during a rehearsal at the Paris Opera. Script also taps into the grudging respect between hunter and prey, as Valentin and Bonnot each fight for what they believe in. Tense finale and multiple codas all click, and the Belle Epoque settings, garb, vehicles and accessories are nicely deployed on a reported budget of 17 million euros ($20.5 million).
During its nine-year, 36-episode run, the TV series covered the period from 1907-1920. Show’s infectious theme song (by Big Band legend Claude Bolling) rouses local memories as surely as “The Twilight Zone” or “Batman” themes do Stateside.