Tartan Video // 2004 // 111 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 20th, 2011
They follow one law. Their own.
There's a famous Bill Hicks routine where he claims that the Brits "do not have crime like we have crime." The gag is that of course Britain has crime, but (at least at the time) it wasn't getting quite as much press as the explosion of gangs in inner city America. Based strictly on their movies (or at least the ones I've seen), I sort of feel the same way about France. Sure they've got petty crime (Bresson's Pickpocket), the occasional prison break (Renoir's The Grand Illusion), a heist now and then (Dassin's Rififi), or even the occasional premeditated murder (Clouzot's Diabolique). However, a serious, hardcore group of violent criminals is a thing not often seen in the French films that cross the Atlantic. Perhaps that's why 36th Precinct has garnered some serious kudos during its slow trip to these shores. It's the kind of dark, character-driven crime film we're used to in America, and combined with some excellent French talent in front of the camera , 36th Precinct offers fans of the genre a solid change of pace.
France has been rocked by a series of daring, violent armed robberies over the last eighteen months. The police have no serious leads, and the politicians are breathing down their necks. Two men have been told that if they catch the gang, the job of police chief is theirs. One (Daniel Auteuil, Caché ) is an honest, street-level kind of guy whose main concern is catching the bad guys and protecting his men. The other (Gérard Depardieu, Potich) is a bitter, power-hungry cop not afraid to step on anyone in his quest for advancement. As the pressure mounts, the pair go to increasingly great lengths to catch the criminals and trip up each other.
36th Precinct (or just 36, as it was known in England) is a wolf in sheep's clothing. It masquerades as a crime film, complete with gun-toting Frenchmen on the cover and glowing quotes about how strong a "thriller" the film is. Really, 36 has more in common with the operatic or tragic kind of gangster films than it does with typical cops 'n' robbers thrillers. Unlike many crime films (especially heist films), 36 is much more character driven. Although the robberies and chases form an important backdrop, this film is really about our two officers. As the film unfolds we see how their lives have intersected with their careers. The film is definitely aiming high, trying to show what happens when loyalty and rules are tested for the "good" of catching violent bad guys.
The obvious comparison is to Michael Mann's Heat, and 36 tries valiantly to merge its dark, gritty story of the brotherhood of police with a dark, stylish visual scheme filled with lots of night time shots and blue hues. The most obvious difference between the two films is that 36 even more strongly blurs the line between good guys and bad guys by showing the cops going to illegal lengths to catch the bad guys. In some ways, that's an even better parallel to draw than the one Mann does between lonely, driven cops and lonely, driven robbers.
No matter what the subject or how strong the visual style, 36 would be nothing without its two leads. I'm used to Auteuil as either a comic actor or playing a meeker sort of character. There are shades of that vulnerability in his portrayal here, but when the moment calls for it he rises admirably to the challenge of being a tough police officer. Depardieu is his opposite, all swagger and bluff. He gets his work done not through confrontation but back alley deals. Despite the fact that the film wants our sympathies to lie with Auteuil, there's something unsavory about him, and while Depardieu's character is despicable, he gives him a tragic dignity that makes the film that much more deliciously complicated.
Despite taking over half a decade to get an American release, 36th Precinct looks solid on Blu-ray. The 2.35:1 AVC-encoded transfer is excellent over all. Detail is generally strong, blacks appropriately deep, and artifacts minimal. The film's look skews blue overall, and that scheme is represented well. The French surround track is a Dolby 5.1 mix, and it does a fine job balancing the film's dialogue with the occasional use of atmospherics and boomy low end during action sequences.
Extras start with an interview with director Olivier Marchal, who discusses the genesis of his crime pic. We then get a solid half-hour making-of that combines production footage with and interviews. After that, a pair of featurettes (about a half-hour total) looking at the film's guns and costumes. Finally, we get the film's trailers.
I wanted 36 to be a slam-dunk crime film, but it's not quite perfect. First, there's the expectation that it will be a lot more action-oriented than it turned out to be. That's the not the film's fault per se, but viewers should know what they're getting into with this film. Second, there's the fact that the action sequences the film does unleash feel a bit anemic and tacked-on. I know they have to establish how bad-ass the bad guys are with at least a few shootouts, but the film's focus is on the cops, not the robbers. It's not even that they're bad, just strangely integrated into the film. Finally, integration is a key word for this film, as it is trying to do a lot of different things. This leads to a bit of a pacing problem. The film feels slower than it ought to, and as it builds to its gut-punching climax, the 111-minute film feels more like a 180-minute film.
It might be a bit of a nitpick, but this single-layer Blu-ray disc lacks the French DTS-HD track that graced the film in its native incarnation. Doubling the disc's capacity would allow for the inclusion of that lossless track, and could only help the film's stylish look.
36th Precinct is an above-average genre drama that combines the trappings of a crime flick with some serious dramatic intent. The excellent performances from Auteuil and Depardieu anchor a crime picture that shows (along with recent films like the Mesrine flicks) we in America need to step up our game to stay on top of the crime picture genre.
Despite a few problems, 36th Precinct is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated