According to Judge Joel Pearce, French gangster movies can be just as clichéd as ones from any other country.
Live by it. Die by it.
For anyone who was wondering, we can now be certain that a French derivative action gangster flick is about the same as one from anywhere else. Aside from some decent cinematography and a couple of solid performances, The Code feels awfully stale.
Facts of the Case
The plot begins much like Gone in 60 Seconds. Dris (Samuel Le Bihan, Brotherhood of the Wolf) is a recently released criminal who has decided to go straight. He's not the brightest guy in the world, but he has a woman who loves him and a minimum wage job that keeps him out of trouble. He then gets dragged back into the business by his slightly crazy cousin named Yanis (Samy Naceri).
At around this point, the film becomes more of a riff on GoodFellas or Scarface. Dris and his family get caught in the middle of an ugly gang war, which quickly gets out of control and leads to a confrontation that the audience will be able to see coming from very early on.
Well, I suppose it's probably fairly obvious already how I feel about The Code. I was excited to see it, especially because of Samuel Le Bihan's involvement. Brotherhood of the Wolf was a very fun ride, but now I have learned once again that there's no point in getting excited over the same lead performers. To be fair to Mr. Le Bihan, the problems with this film aren't at all his fault. There are problems, though, serious problems that push the film into the depths of mediocrity:
1. Samuel Le Bihan has been cast as a North African gangster. Now, I am all for using my imagination while watching films, but I was confused the first few times that he was referred to as an Arab. The filmmakers dyed his hair black and gave him color contacts, but it's still too much of a stretch for me to buy it. It reeks of casting a famous person to increase interest in the film, and that's a smell I am not very fond of. His presence in the film is continually distracting.
2. The dialogue sucks. No point in beating around the bush on this one—the lines that comes pouring out of these characters are so awkward that I felt sorry for the actors. Particularly horrible is the English dub track. The lines have little to do with the literal translation in the subtitles, and it seems to have been performed by the same group of guys that dubbed the old John Woo and Ringo Lam movies. Compared to the English track, the French dialogue sounds like Tarantino, but it's still pretty bad. It's almost as if characters from old film noir movies have been transplanted into a Guy Ritchie film. The things the characters say just don't seem to fit in the film that director Manuel Boursinhac was making.
3. My complaints with the script bring me right into the third problem. Those of us who have seen a few crime dramas before have already been acquainted with a few of the allusions that are used to connect gangs of criminals. We understand that these gangs are like a family. In fact, this comparison has become such a pivotal part of gang movies that we don't need to have it brought up every three minutes. Slightly less common is the fact that mob bosses feel like gods when they exert their power. The whole notion of the code of honor is pretty common as well, but here it's treated like some brilliant revelation—a concept none of us would have considered before.
4. The script has serious structural problems. Dris is supposed to be lured back into the life by his old friends and lover, even though he is betraying his girlfriend. He doesn't get slowly sucked back into the life, though. They show up one night, and he's gone. He comes back and apologizes once, but then he just gets stuck again, and we don't see her again for almost half the film. In order for the film to work, Dris needs to be a strong character that we feel sympathy for when he becomes trapped in a life that has hurt him so much in the past. When it takes all of twenty minutes for this to happen, he just comes off looking stupid.
5. Other stereotypes abound. They're all here, folks. Strip bar scenes, an armored car heist ripped right out of Heat, a younger brother who causes serious problems, the femme fatale pickpocket who has Dris by the balls, and a turf war that culminates into a shootout. I kept waiting to see De Niro and Pacino in cameo roles, but they never showed up.
6. This is a boring movie. I don't require continuous action to be entertained, but a gangster movie needs to have either compelling characters and an interesting plot, or else lots of action. The Code has neither. The action scenes that are here are watchable, but I was completely bored of the film by the time they arrived.
Not everything about The Code is bad. It's just that in a movie so bland, the good points don't seem so important. The performance by Samy Naceri is quite solid, even though we have seen the manic, unhinged, trigger-happy gangster character many times before. The cinematography is attractive, using tons of mirrors and glass to shift the perspective of the camera. The music is unusual, with Spanish guitar riffs that never dominate the action. The heist scene at the beginning is clever and fun, and demonstrates a sophistication that is never again shown through the rest of the film.
The disc is technically well produced, if completely devoid of extra material. The video transfer is clean, displayed in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The black levels are solid, and the muted colors of underworld Paris are accurately represented. The sound is solid as well. The French 5.1 track has clear dialogue, well-mixed and understated music, and the surrounds kick in when necessary. As I mentioned before, save yourself the pain of listening to the English track. It's louder, less subtle, and horribly inaccurate. As far as extras go, Columbia dug into their archives and produced the theatrical trailer. Thanks, guys. I suppose I wouldn't have wasted time producing bonus material for The Code either, so I'm not really that upset.
If you have an ongoing contest with your friends to see who can collect the most gangster movies, I suppose this disc could be worth getting, if only for bragging rights. That's just about the only conceivable reason anyone would have to pay money for what is essentially a mish-mash of better films we have already seen. If you are a gangster movie junkie, I suppose you may want to give this a rent. Just don't come crying to me when you're disappointed with the film.
Everyone involved with the making of this film have been found guilty of violating the code. You have betrayed and disappointed your audience. I hope you don't think you can get away with that.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2004 Joel Pearce; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.