While many of us take the French to be major art house film snobs, they can enjoy a good ol‘ genre movie like the rest of us, if not even more so. Where else but in France could a schlocky serial killer thriller like the Colin Farrell-Anthony Hopkins starrer Solace — which will be getting a stateside day-and-date release in a few weeks — rake in nearly 1 million admissions? And where else but in Paris could John Carpenter hold a concert for thousands of screaming fans, jamming along to the themes to his movies as highlight reels were projected in the background?
Yet as much as the French love their horror, action or sci-fi flicks, they have a harder time churning out quality genre material on their own (with a few notable exceptions, such as the recent femme-centric cannibal movie Raw). The latest B-grade offering to hit Gallic theaters is Jean-Patrick Benes‘ Gaumont-backed dystopian thriller Ares. It’s a film that in its best moments revisits the smoggy neo-urban textures of Blade Runner but otherwise feels like a questionable cross between Bloodsport and Babylon A.D., mixing free fighting sequences with an underwritten story about a loner taking on an evil pharmaceutical corporation in futuristic Paris. Released to little fanfare at home, the movie’s strong craft contributions could still give it a minor push abroad.
French dystopian thriller is tough as nails and just as dumb.
It’s the year 2035, and the City of Lights isn’t what it used to be. Forget about cafes, baguettes and pleasant strolls through the Luxembourg Gardens, because Paris has transformed into an over-polluted danger zone replete with digital billboards, a bitter subservient populace (25 percent of them unemployed) and a police force controlled by big business. Most people make a living as human guinea pigs, testing the latest product from pharma giant Donevia, whose malicious CEO (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) goes to violent extremes to keep his stock price afloat.
Enter Reda, aka Ares (Ola Rapace), a jacked-up boxer with an imposing head scar resulting from brain damage he suffered a decade ago — brain damage that may also explain why he seems incapable of stringing a full sentence together. Ares is far from the best-ranked fighter in France, so when his sister (Emilie Gavois-Kahn) is framed and arrested for possessing a gun, he agrees to try out a new power-boosting drug called HFX that will allow him to brawl his way to the top, earning enough money to get her out of jail.
That it takes Ares nearly the entire movie to figure out he’s been set up from the get-go may also be attributed to his brain damage, or else to a script by Benes and co-writer Allan Mauduit that heads to the most predictable places and does so with little nuance or originality. This, coupled with a supporting cast of certified genre cheese and sleaze — including a boxing coach (Thierry Hancisse), agent/shag buddy (Helene Fillieres) and flamboyant cross-dressing neighbor with the impossible name of Myosotis (Micha Lescot) — will likely knock Ares down and out for most discerning viewers.
On the plus side, there are some nifty fight scenes during which Ares faces off against various steroid-charged hunks of meat — one of whom looks a lot like former WWF wrestler King Kong Bundy — with Swedish actor Rapace (Skyfall) revealing himself to be more adept at throwing punches than at tossing off lines of dialogue. Production values are also impressive in a film that looks way better than it plays, with cinematographer Jerome Almeras (In the House) capturing Paris through multiple layers of soot and haze, and vfx supervisor Alain Carsoux (Amelie) providing an array of signs from the future, including an Eiffel Tower surrounded by giant TV monitors broadcasting corporate propaganda all day and night.
Production companies: Albertine Productions, Gaumont, Cinefrance
Cast: Ola Rapace, Micha Lescot, Thierry Hancisse, Helene Fillieres, Ruth Vega Fernandez, Eva Lallier, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing
Director: Jean-Patrick Benes
Screenwriters: Jean-Patrick Benes, Allan Mauduit, in collaboration with Benjamin Dupas
Producers: Sidonie Dumas, Matthieu Tarot
Director of photography: Jerome Almeras
Production designer: Jeremy Streliski
Costume designer: Pierre Canitrot
Editor: Vincent Tabaillon
Composer: Alex Cortes
Casting director: Tatiana Vialle