As is usually the case with movies that involves people trying to figure out who they are, and discovering that all they know was never real to begin with, the journey ends up being more exciting than the destination. Such was the case with “The Bourne Identity”, where following Bourne as he tries to uncover his identity was more intriguing than discovering that at the end of the rainbow was nothing more than another same-o same-o generic Evil CIA Plot. The only film that I can recall having a better post-Reveal is “The Matrix”, which managed to not only sustain the momentum generated in the first act, but actually excel.
Director Chris Nahon’s “Empire of the Wolves”, the follow-up to his “Kiss of the Dragon” (starring Jet Li), falls into step with “The Bourne Identity”, with a second half that is all sound, trumpets, and nearly incomprehensible fury. The film opens with French housewife Anna (Arly Jover) suffering from a bout of amnesia — she can remember almost everything, except where she came from and, shockingly, the face of her own husband. Meanwhile, young Police Captain Paul Nerteaux (Jocelyn Quivrin) is in Little Turkey fishing out the body of a slain and mutilated Turkish girl, the third such occurrence.
A stranger to Little Turkey and its customs, Paul seeks the aid of grizzled but highly untrustworthy cop Schiffer (Jean Reno), who has spent 20 years of his police career working with the Turks and knows the ins and outs of the hidden community. The duo uncovers a seedy underworld run by the Turkish mob, gets into their fair share of gunfights, someone loses an eye, some fingers, and an underground bath house is shot to ribbons. Meanwhile, Anna discovers that her husband may not be her husband after all when she uncovers what looks like surgical scars behind the back of her ears. The poor woman flees, and that’s when everything starts to unravel.
Running at just two hours, “Empire of the Wolves” can best be described as two movies — the intriguing and suspense-filled first half, where Anna’s story seems to have no correlation to the investigation by Paul and Schiffer, and the action-packed second half, which brings all the various characters and plot threads together in what is essentially a geo-political thriller. The plot details are easy enough to decipher, but one can’t help but get the feeling that the film jettisons its most ambitious and exciting parts (the mystery behind Anna’s past and the deaths of the Turkish immigrant girls) for gunfire, enough plot contrivances to choke Anna Nicole Smith, and what can best be described as shockingly poor plotting.
Based on the novel by Jean-Christophe Grange, who also penned the Jean Reno-starrer “The Crimson Rivers”, “Empire” is beautiful to look at, with the French locales constantly enshrouded in darkness, rain, and fog. The Turkish community is appropriately run-down and dangerous, and Schiffer and Paul’s run-ins with the Turkish mob oftentimes becoming brutal encounters where limbs are lost and people are beaten to within an inch of their life. Effectively a big-budget action-thriller in the Hollywood tradition, “Empire” indulges in its share of incoherent plotting and amazing lapses in narrative plotting, which immediately makes it stand out from the throngs of pretentious fare you usually get out of France .
Like most would-be blockbusters, “Empire of the Wolves” indeed strains credibility on more than one occasion. The problem lies in the script, which was co-written by director Chris Nahon and the book’s novelist, so one can’t really say things weren’t translated properly from novel to screenplay. There is also no real chemistry between Schiffer and Paul, with the relationship basically consisting of Paul not getting anywhere in his investigation and Schiffer beating the information out of people to help move things along. And for a string of murders, it’s amazing how little support Paul gets. The entire French police force apparently consists of one young cop and one old shady cop. It’s somewhat humorous to watch Schiffer and Paul go around France chopping off fingers, poking out eyes, and leaving a huge bodycount in their wake, but no one ever seems to care, and Paul never seems to feel the need to inform anyone about all his bloody encounters.
What’s most important for those looking to past a few hours is that “Empire of the Wolves” knows how to be entertaining, something it manages quite easily, with Anna ending up more like La Femme Nikita than Jason Bourne. Curiously, the film’s potentially controversial Counter Terrorism side plots are all but tossed out the window in favor of gunfights, which is a shame because for an hour there, it seemed as if Nahon and company were after a political point, but perhaps decided against it at the last minute.
Overall, “Empire of the Wolves” is a very nicely done action/thriller, with the highlight being a brief skirmish between Schiffer and a Turkish assassin in a sort of underground church mausoleum. The many appearances of a mysterious coda of Turkish super assassins, called the Wolves, make up the film’s other stellar action set pieces. That is, if you don’t ask yourself how these Turks managed to develop into nearly superhuman ninja-like assassins given their circumstances back home. But I digress. Although it doesn’t quite muster up the same intelligence in its second half that it scores easily with its first, “Empire of the Wolves” is still a reasonably entertaining whole.
Chris Nahon (director) / Luc Bossi, Christian Clavier, Jean-Christophe Grang’, Chris Nahon, Franck Ollivier (screenplay)
CAST: Jean Reno …. Jean-Louis Schiffer
Arly Jover …. Anna Heymes
Jocelyn Quivrin …. Paul Nerteaux
Laura Morante …. Mathilde Urano
Philippe Bas …. Laurent
David Kammenos …. Azer