“Second Wind” takes a second look at the late Jose Giovanni’s tale of honor, and the lack of same, among thieves, the first of which was Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1966 adaptation starring Lino Ventura. As opposed to Melville’s hard, pared-down telling, Alain Corneau’s new version imposes an almost operatic conception on its delineation of the tragic destiny of an old-school criminal faced with new realities after a long prison stint. Material’s pedigree, exaggerated treatment and continental star names could put this ambitious production over in Europe and elsewhere, but it will be a hard sell Stateside, where its style and substance will appear both out of step and out of date.
A former criminal and longtime prisoner for whom subsequent surprise success as a novelist and filmmaker constituted significant redemption, Giovanni drew on his past for his subject matter, beginning with “Le Trou” and his novel “Le deuxieme souffle,” the latter published in 1958. The writer battled constantly with Melville over changes the latter made to his material, and, although the 150-minute film was well received, Giovanni was never entirely happy with it.
New version, which runs even longer, is set in the early ’60s, and while the fashions, cars and attitudes are consistent with this, the yarn unspools in a bizarrely artificial world, thanks to the gaudy, squint-inducing color scheme, grandiose music and almost underwater pace of the action; “stylized” scarcely begins to describe the approach here.
Still, there is no doubt that Corneau, a sometime specialist in policiers and crime dramas by virtue of “Police Python 367,” “Serie noire,” “Choice of Arms” and “Le Cousin,” achieves precisely the effects he desires. In an opening scene that feels like the final sequence in a chapter of an old serial, one prisoner falls to his death trying to escape over a high prison wall, but two make it, one of whom is old Gu (Daniel Auteuil).
Just as she gets word Gu is out, nightclub cashier Manouche (Monica Bellucci) and bartender Alban (Eric Cantona) see their chic Paris boite shot up by three invading gangsters. Resulting deaths bring Inspector Blot (Michel Blanc), a nondescript, magnificently sarcastic cop who seems to understand the criminal mind better than do those who have them.
At length, Gu hooks up with his old associates, while Blot moves in on a rival criminal gang led by Jo Ricci (Gilbert Melki). Gu needs to get to Marseille, from where he believes he can disappear to Italy. To finance this, Gu agrees with elegant old crim Orloff (Jacques Dutronc) to pull one more heist, of a ton of gold from a warehouse.
In any such story, everyone knows “one last job” is destined to go awry. But the fallout among thieves here leads directly to Giovanni’s point about changing ways, the declining value of trust, loyalty and one’s word, and the complicity between criminals and cops.
In a nasty turn of events, Gu is tricked into betraying his basic code of honor, resulting in a shocking act of violence and sobering follow-up. Denouement is inevitable and a long time coming, which compounds the problem that a preoccupation with honorable behavior in crime films seems utterly quaint today, given the amorality that has become so rampant since this story was written.
Another issue is the casting of Auteuil. Now decidedly middle-aged, the longtime leading man seems to relish this meaty part, but the crucial aspect to such a role is not so much performance as gravitas, presence and past associations. For the figure of a legendary man outside the law, a film needs an actor with a history of playing such characters, an icon along the lines of Bogart or Cagney in the U.S., Gabin or Ventura in France. Without this, “Second Wind” feels half-cooked.
While dismissible and off-putting at times, the over-the-top embellishments nonetheless provide their own fascination, and resulting stew is indisputably high in cinematic calories. Blanc delivers a very amusing portrait of an obsessed, ultra-articulate cop, while Dutronc, in top hat and driving a Bentley, intrigues as the coolest customer on the criminal scene. Bellucci, as a lifelong companion to underworld types, amply embodies the curvy, bottle-blonde ideal of the era.
Given the familiarity of the theme at this point, perhaps a tight, 90-minute film would have been the ticket this time around. But this would have conflicted with Corneau’s obvious desire to honor Giovanni’s intentions. Resulting length and grandiosity make the picture a curiosity, a footnote to the genre rather than a conclusive statement.