The police outnumber the bad guys seven-to-three in “The Squad,” a suspense-challenged genre programmer whose original French title (“Antigang,” derived from the division tasked with combatting organized crime) suggests a much more exciting dynamic, had the odds been stacked in the villains’ favor. Instead, this old-school American-style cop movie — a loose remake of “The Sweeney” featuring Gallic action-movie icon Jean Reno as the unit’s all-but-bulletproof leader — demonstrates how the aggressors might be steamrolled if, say, Luxembourg suddenly declared war on the United States. Though nothing special, there’s enough police brutality here to drive audience interest in French-speaking markets.
Considering that “The Sweeney” earned a modest $7 million in 2012 — and less than $27,000 in the U.S. — it’s not quite clear why anyone would want a French remake that adds little, unless you count all the cigarettes (even the pregnant lady smokes). Director Benjamin Rocher clearly saw the project as a chance to pay tribute to such 1980s American action movies as “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard.” To his credit, the helmer (hot off soccer-themed zomedy “Goal of the Dead”) delivers playful, high-octane action on a fraction of the budget those star-driven Hollywood pics had to work with, and yet, he seems to have overlooked the elements that made those pics so memorable: namely, unpredictable characters in dangerous underdog situations.
Here, from the antigang squad’s opening raid, it’s the cops who seem to have the upper hand. Featuring a team so big it takes two cars to carry them all, the ensemble bonds en route to a warehouse bust: Cocky Cartier (a “Goal of the Dead” veteran) teases newbie — and nervous birthday boy — Manu (Oumar Diaw) that his odds of survival are slim, seeing as how all the greats — Jim Morrison, Kurt Kobain, Amy Winehouse — died at age 27. It makes for amusing repartee, which Francois Loubeyre and Tristan Schulmann’s script consistently supplies amid its recycled-parts plotting, though Manu needn’t have worried: The goons are no match for this group of rule-bending police officers, who arrive in such numbers that one of them can actually hang out on the sidelines with a video camera and document their tactics.
While American cop movies have gotten gritty as scribes like David Ayer bring technical slang, on-the-job research and the specter of police corruption to their scripts, this one feels machine-made and almost simple-minded by comparison: In “The Squad,” all the cops are clean, and it’s just their methods — from wielding baseball bats during police raids to dangling suspects off rooftops — that rankle the department’s arrogant new boss, Becker (Thierry Neuvic). Squad captain Buren (Reno, pushing 70) doesn’t pay Becker much mind, ignoring his orders at work and sleeping with his much-younger wife (ex-Bond girl Caterina Murino) in private.
Such improbable complications weigh down a movie that brings little new to the table, save for a sleek outdoor action sequence which more or less redeems “The Squad” midway through. Just prior, Becker snarls, “Cowboys don’t belong in this mission,” effectively benching Buren’s team as he leads the rest of the department across town to stop a jewelry-store robbery in progress. That caper is a decoy, however, leaving Buren and his six “cowboy” colleagues to thwart the real heist at the Daedalis private bank, located at the base of France’s National Library — an ultra-modern glass-and-steel complex ripe for a Michael Mann-style shootout.
While the technique feels clunky in other scenes (particularly all the awkwardly lensed in-car conversations), and the fighting looks wrestling-match phony, the bank heist makes for genuine white-knuckle entertainment: Cartier and the others cower behind columns as heavy-duty machine guns fire into crowds of panic-stricken pedestrians, but not Buren, who grabs his shotgun and does his best Stallone, lumbering directly into the line of fire. If only Rocher had managed to deliver an equally exciting climax. Instead, the imbalance of power becomes almost laughable after smug Russian villain Kasper (Swedish actor Jakob Cedergren) tastes the consequences of a cop killing. Already outnumbered by the antigang division for most of the movie, he doesn’t stand a chance against the entire Paris police force.