American audiences take the Tarantino-ization of genre cinema for granted, but not so the French, who adore the director (who won the Palme d’Or for “Pulp Fiction”) but never went so far as to imitate him outright, until now. Director Romain Gavras’ “The World Is Yours” is the long overdue yet entirely unnecessary gangster movie that French audiences have been missing all this time — a fresh riff on “Les Tontons flingueurs” by way of “Jackie Brown” — and judging by the uproarious reception the film received at its Director’s Fortnight premiere in Cannes, they’re grateful to have a cocky, talky, high-attitude crime saga for themselves.
Following Gavras’ gonzo redheads-will-inherit-the-earth debut, “Our Day Will Come,” this film is a massive change of tone for the director, son of politically conscious “Z” auteur Costa-Gavras and a visionary music-video helmer in his own right. Whereas the younger Gavras’ first feature demonstrated both his high-level technical skill and the confidence to subvert audience expectations, this one feels more mainstream — and ought to do big business in France while remaining more of a cult novelty abroad (maybe the world isn’t theirs after all).
Though the title sounds like a variation on “Our Day Will Come,” film buffs should recognize it as a wink to the granddaddy of modern gangster movies — not “The Godfather” but Brian De Palma’s “Scarface,” which was just as much an influence on Gavras here as “Reservoir Dogs.” Still, Tarantino is the clear model for the movie’s colorful gallery of criminal types, who express themselves in self-consciously cool, pop-culture-referencing dialogue (in the second scene, when a getaway driver shares a long-winded analysis of kitschy French pop song “La vie ne m’apprend rien,” you can guess where Gavras got the idea). Scraping by on the periphery of the Paris underworld, these small-time hoods would be right at home in a Guy Ritchie caper, though Gavras and co-writers Karim Boukercha et Noé Debré expand the cartoonish archetype by incorporating aspects of class and race.
To the near total exclusion of the white characters who typically dominate French cinema (with the exception of “Our Day Will Come” star Vincent Cassel, who holds a kind of honorary place in this Maghrebi gang), “World” centers on second- and third-generation immigrants, African and Arabic alike, fighting to assert their place in a culture that so often disrespects them — although they would never put it that way. These guys just want to get rich, which mild-mannered François (Karim Leklou) is trying to do the old-fashioned way, hoping to make an honest living by negotiating a contract to distribute Mister Freeze ice pops in North Africa. But François is kind of a dope, easily conned and not assertive enough to run a business, much less do his own laundry.
François lives at home with his domineering mother, Danny (Isabelle Adjani, embracing her half-Algerian heritage in hilariously flamboyant fashion), a self-appointed prima donna who lives in a nondescript suburban apartment but dresses like a Saudi oil-tycoon’s wife, with her oversize designer shades and extravagant headscarves. Reminiscent of Jacki Weaver’s imperious turn in “Animal Kingdom,” Adjani is the best thing about the movie, bossing her son around one moment and gambling away his savings the next. She’s not the slightest bit put off by his criminal activities. Au contraire, Danny can be a ruthless lawbreaker when the occasion calls for it — as in an early set-piece where she and a bunch of her friends pull off an elaborate shoplifting scam at Paris’ Galeries Lafayette department store.
To raise enough money to finance his Mister Freeze project, François agrees to oversee a major drug deal in Spain for his boss Putin (Sofian Khammes, a cut-up whose big personality and bizarre mannerisms feel a bit too eccentric), who sends along two of his least reliable thugs, both named Mohamed, to complicate things. For his part, François invites Henry (Cassell, amusingly thickheaded as an ex-con — soon to be one of Danny’s future ex-boyfriends) and bad girl Lamya (Oulaya Amamara), who’s not really interested in him but fancies the idea of a free trip to Barcelona.
Nothing goes as expected — which, of course, is just what audiences are expecting from a movie like this, which thrives on a kind of organized chaos in which things appear to spin ferociously out of control, all the while advancing toward an orderly conclusion that only its architects could have foreseen. Gavras has a slick touch, reteaming with DP André Chemetoff to convey the sense that behind every unpredictable move — including but not limited to double-crosses, narco-terrorism, a kidnapping, and a desperate call home to Mommy — stands a storyteller in total command of the chessboard.
These criminals may be out of their league, but Gavras orchestrates it all with a surfeit of style and an irreverent sense of humor that spares no one, no matter their background. The film is proudly non-PC, especially as concerns the various immigrant groups involved (Adjani delivers the coup de grâce during the finale, set at a crowded waterpark, where she comes out rocking a head-to-toe burkini).
Casting directors Philippe Elkoubi and Des Hamilton have assembled a veritable rogues’ gallery of ugly mugs — actors with big ears and crooked noses — that would be right at home in a Dick Tracy strip. Leklou holds his own among all these odd-looking faces. Introduced by “A Prophet” and taken seriously ever since his leading turn in 2015 French indie “Heat Wave,” the actor proves fascinating to watch: He could pass for Travis Bickle’s slow cousin, lumbering and harmless on the outside yet possessed by something scary behind his eyes — after a lifetime of repression, dominated by his mother, Francois is primed to explode. Gavras never fully taps into that potential, though he certainly recognizes Leklou’s underdog appeal. If this crazy world should go to anyone, it might as well be him.