“The Crimson Rivers” – A.J. Hakari

There aren’t many actors out there who have a face quite like Jean Reno’s. His versatile visage is one that has the potential to convey the sadness and wisdom of the hardest years a man has ever lived (as seen in The Professional), as well the droll reactions of the perfect comedic straight man (as seen in The Pink Panther). It’s the former that serves him most in the grisly French thriller The Crimson Rivers, but his character, not to mention the film itself, isn’t completely humorless. The flick is a rather lurid little shocker, but it never loses its power to entertain, its uncanny ability to know just how much of the story to reveal to keep viewers interested — even as the plot starts to get a little too ridiculous for its own good.

High up in the French Alps, a most heinous crime has been committed. A man’s corpse has been found not only severely mutilated but also strung up 150 feet off the ground. A case of this puzzling magnitude calls for the services of Commissioner Pierre Niemans (Reno), a “mega-cop” who serves as a veritable one-man crimefighting army. Right off the bat, Niemans finds something incredibly fishy about the self-sufficient university the victim worked for. He discovers that the institution’s teachers have been marrying amongst themselves for years, resulting in a streak of inbreeding that has started to take its toll on the latest generation of their intellectual spawn. As Niemans continues looking into the bizarre murder, local cop Max Kerkerian (Vincent Cassel) conducts an investigation of his own. Though it seems like the desecration of a girl’s grave and mysterious theft of certain documents from her old school are isolated incidents, they have more in common with Niemans’s case than he thinks, eventually throwing the two men together in order to stop a mad killer before he (or she) strikes again.

The recent rise in TV crime dramas like “CSI” and “Cold Case” may have desensitized some to the gruesome shocks that The Crimson Rivers is prepared to deliver. It’s also as convoluted as a lot of those shows tend to be, which both works for and against the flick in the end. Director/co-writer Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) fills the story with some delightfully gonzo details, so far-fetched that you almost have to watch the whole movie to see if things get anymore weird. You’ve got to give Kassovitz credit for helping craft a story in which the killer goes so far as to gather samples of decades-old acid rain and leave them in the hollowed-out eyes of a victim as a deliberate clue. Yet at the same time, Kassovitz tests the audience’s suspension of disbelief just a little too much. Once mention of Nazis and eugenics work their way into the plot, the flick’s charm starts to wear off, and with plot twists still being added on as the film begins coming to a close, it all starts to become a little too much to handle.

Still, The Crimson Rivers does a great job of keeping you wrapped up for the most part, mostly thanks to Kassovitz setting precisely the sort of tone the film needed. Don’t mistake this picture for being two hours’ worth of Jean Reno chasing bad guys through the snow; Kassovitz stretches the story across a number of locations and whips up an atmosphere of dread wherever he goes (an icy cavern serves as the setting for one of the film’s more tense moments). He has a way of suggesting that no matter how creepy things are on the surface, they’re even worse underneath, which goes a long way in piquing the viewer’s curiosity as to what revelations await.

Despite a couple of cliched character hang-ups (including an arbitrary fear of dogs), Reno pulls through with yet another badass performance as a “seen it all, done it all” cop who still manages to get weirded out by all the insane goings-on he uncovers during his investigation. Cassel fares well as the hot-tempered Kerkerian, but he’s easily overshadowed by Reno (especially when Cassel’s character gets saddled with a random and sort of lame martial arts sequence). The supporting cast isn’t peppered with singularly creepy performances, but rather they form a sinister collective, reflecting the university faculty’s cult-like way of life.

With a name like The Crimson Rivers, you can tell that it’s a flick that won’t skimp on the grue and gore. But aside from that, the film presents a fairly fascinating mystery at its core that, no matter how convoluted it gets, displays a lot more imagination than a good chunk of Hollywood’s homegrown thrillers can claim to boast.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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