Olivier Marchal’s 36 Quai des orfevres has been touted as the French answer to Michael Mann’s Heat. If by that what they mean to infer that the film is a gruff exercise in over-inflated egos dropped into an unlikely crime caper, then they are spot on. Heat became an instant classic, though its still a mystery how that was achieved. Simply pitching Robert De Niro and Al Pacino against one another seemed to give a mediocre film a shortcut to status. There was a lot of it in 1995 and 1996, and it came with the return and rise of the film magazine and a lot of new young writers intent on creating a wave to be part of it.
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De Niro, for once, underplayed the role, cannily allowing his co-star Pacino to embarrass himelf getting very loud and carried away. Heat was an identically plotted second-take by Mann of his television movie L.A. Takedown, so if it wasn’t good enough the first time around then why was it wowed when revisited.
36 Quai des orfevres has been twinned with Heat largely on the basis that it too stars two of its country’s biggest film names, Gérard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil. This time both are policemen. Denis Klein (Depardieu) is a particularly lousy cop amongst lousy cops; his reputation preceding him, and Leo Vrinks (Auteuil) is one of the few fellow officers willing to acquaint with him outside of Klein’s OCU team. Auteuil’s BRI bunch aren’t 100 percent by the book either, friendly with whores, putting the heavy scare on villains and nicking the titular street plate from the government building, to sign and present to popular detective, Eddie Valance (Daniel Duval) at his going away party (oddly, its not his last day, though, the story necessitating his working long enough to… well, we’ll get there). A vicious gang of robbers have been causing chaos and the corpses are left everywhere. The tracking down of the gang is of moreover importance to Klein as he is looking to become police commissioner, and their capture should secure it for him. The incumbent commissioner wants Vrinks to replace him though and urges him to bring them in or down.
When the gang is located the two teams descend on the hideaway and Klein is given instructions to step back, that Vrinks will lead. A drunken Klein is not playing though and stomps into action with disastrous results. Valance is killed and there is a cover-up but an unforgiving BRI squad turn their backs on Klein during the funeral. In order to get a lead on the gang Vrinks has put himself in a ridiculously difficult situation and when his part in the deaths of three gangsters becomes known he is looking at jail time. Klein is happy to ensure that it happens if, as the only other captain, it will make him commissioner. Vrinks is married to Klein’s former lover, Camille (Valeria Golino) with whom he has a daughter, and until he provides the authorities with details of the whereabouts of the killer they will prevent him contact with family, and hold him in cells ad infinitum. The killer, Hugo (Roschdy Zem), wants to repay the family for Vrinks silence and contacts Camille, but Klein has been having her tailed and the pursuit culminates in both Hugo and Camille’s death.
Years later and Klein is in charge having weeded out those with mouth enough to come up against him and endanger his position. BRI officer Titi (Francis Renard) has been thrown out for urinating on him during a function and is reduced to nightclub security. On Vrinks’ release from prison, Titi is one of few truly trusted and looked up. Klein has become a controlling, cold, son-of-a-gun in the interim period and he continues to monitor Vrinks movements on his release, expecting revenge. Various parties seem to have gone into hibernation over the years but preposterously return contributing tidily to the final few fatal acts.
The film plods initially but this lulls you into a false sense of certainty that it will go nowhere. As a result its minor jolts become something approximating shock twists. Continually the film beats back credibility but it idly grows into a bigger story with a modicum of interest. It is a stupid film but you have to see it to its end. Filmmakers really have to try harder than this. Perhaps they don’t get The Shield in France, but they certainly saw Bertrand Tavernier’s excellent L.627 (1992). Vrinks and Klein simply aren’t that interesting. The long list of characters is doled out with full names and the beginnings of a background, full names, ethnicity, filiality. Each of the criminal gang too. It’s like someone had an eye on accompanying action figures in the merchandising. But characters are only taken so far, curtailed and, like the entire film, half drawn. 36 Quai des orfevres is a bemusing time passer, no more, and probably not worth a second gander.