Considering how many graphic novels have been adapted into films, it’s curious that only a precious few graphic novelists have ever directed a movie and, when they do, it’s almost always adapted from their own source material. The list practically begins and ends with Frank Miller (“Sin City” and its sequel) and Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis” and “Chicken with Plums”). It seems not many graphic novelists can get a handle on the dozens of other disparate concerns involved in making a movie.
This warning goes heedlessly ignored by Igor Tuveri, the Italian illustrator who goes by the name Igort. His 2002 graphic novel “5 Is the Perfect Number,” about a Naples hitman who comes out of retirement to avenge his son’s murder, is a moody crime saga rendered in muted, duotone colors. In directing the film adaptation, Igort tries another visual tack entirely, bringing the sledgehammer style with ultra-bold, dramatic and pulpy visuals that drip with the wages of sin and the burden of regret.
What he also brings is slack pacing and frustrating storytelling gaps that drain the electricity from those meticulously composed visuals. It’s a feast for the eyes, and Tony Servillo (“The Great Beauty”) is pitch perfect as the vengeance-minded older Mafioso. But with no involving story on offer, rain-slickened streets and rat-a-tat tommy guns just aren’t enough. Should it arrive Stateside, the film will bring in genre fans on the strength of its sure-to-be-blistering trailer alone. Once disappointment spreads, though, its only hope will be achieving cult status.
The film comes in hot with a brief title sequence evoking any number of Italian opening credit designs from the ’70s. From here, we meet Peppino (Servillo), a former hired killer for the Camorra crime family living in a desolate Naples of near-perpetual rain. Peppino has just purchased a Colt Cobra .38 Special as a gift for his son, Nino (Lorenzo Lancellotti). A dapper, thinly mustachioed chip off the murderous block, Nino is on his way out the door to take care of a “skunk.” By the end of the evening, he’ll be laying dead on a cobblestone street. With payback on his mind, Peppino retrieves a dusty briefcase filled with guns and grenades. Now all he needs are some willing accomplices.
If you think we’re headed for a down-and-dirty “Taken”-style blast of medieval vengeance, such is not the case. ‘5 Is the Perfect Number’ is instead a superficial wallow in the same moral gray areas we’ve seen explored more effectively in many other Mafia tales: the counterintuitive notions of honor among thieves, the Mafiosi’s love of family and our own irresistible desire to romanticize organized crime. Igort has nothing new to say about any of it, addressing those themes via Peppino’s collection of anecdotes and world-weary aphorisms deeply intoned by Servillo for maximum portentousness.
With Peppino reluctantly back in business, he enlists his old friend Totò (Carlo Buccirosso) to find who killed Nino, a quest that inspires almost zero viewer involvement because we have no idea how Peppino is finding these people. It’s not so much an investigation as a series of dramatic entrances. Each is meant to propel us to the next violent showdown, of course. And Igort, working with DP Nicolai Brüel, serves up a noir-infused feast of striking imagery. A gunfight in a pitch-black hallway lit only by muzzle flashes is a highlight, but also a testament to the film’s sleepy pacing: This inaugural ballet of bullets and blood, bound to recall the work of John Woo, among others, doesn’t happen until 40 minutes into the film.
The marvelous Servillo looks the part, right down to a prosthetic proboscis that makes his nose resemble the handle of the gun that Peppino gives his son. He and the shorter Buccirosso make a good pair, and fedoras-off to Igort for naming the two characters Peppino and Totò, an actual Golden Age Italian comedy duo played by actors who were both born in Naples. Sadly wasted is Valeria Golino as Peppino’s ex-lover Rita, a thinly written moll whose desire for Peppino is so overwhelming that she stands by her window and literally counts the seconds he’s gone.
With its shocks of bold colors, vertiginous angles and glaring headlights that cut through thick fog, “5 Is the Perfect Number” will be compared to Frank Miller’s “Sin City” films. But Igort’s goals are better represented in another crime film based on a graphic novel, 2002’s “Road to Perdition.” Richly shot with atmosphere to spare by Conrad Hall, “Road to Perdition” was, first and foremost, a mournful saga about fathers and sons. As Peppino tells his own son, Nino, in a flashback scene, “If you kill all the criminals, the world will be out of balance.” The world of Igort’s film is out of balance, which tends to happen when you elevate visuals over characters.