The French don’t generally do a lot of straight action movies, or if they do, you don’t hear a lot about them. “Crimson Rivers” (which starred “Secret Agents'” Vincent Cassel) was a stab at the popular serial killer genre, and in a way it succeeded — enough to warrant a sequel, anyway. “The Nest” was a full-tilt action film built around a Macguffin; it was an exhilarating gun’em’all’down flick. And now we have “Secret Agents”, a film about the world of French spies played by the real-life husband and wife team of Cassel and Monica Bellucci (“Malena”).
Of course if you had told me that Monica Bellucci rarely smiles in the entire movie, I might have had second thoughts about watching it. The only thing worst than a beautiful woman you don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell with is one that won’t, or doesn’t want to, smile. In “Secret Agents” the lovely Ms. Bellucci plays Lisa, a secret agent working for the French government. (I know what you’re thinking — who even knew they had secret agents, right?) Along with fellow secret agent George (Vincent Cassel), Lisa and two other agents are sent overseas to sink a ship carrying illegal weapons to a civil war in Africa.
The mission goes off without a hitch, but it’s getting back home that’s the problem. Lisa is framed and tossed into prison, and one of the agents is promptly murdered back in France. George and the remaining agent are forced to go into the cold to learn the truth and uncover why their own French Government seems to be behind all their recent misfortunes. As it turns out, French Government spy agencies in movies are just as eeeeevil as their American counterparts. Go figure. Where’s Matt Damon when you need him?
Back to the movie at hand. “Secret Agents” is very French, which means the first hour is almost completely devoid of action. There’s a brief chase and gunfight in the beginning as an anonymous French agent is killed by anonymous thugs searching for an anonymous microchip. By the time we meet George, we’ve learned that he’s a daredevil because he likes jumping out of planes for fun. Lisa, on the other hand, has become disfranchised, and has publicly stated her desires to leave the job. Too bad for her, because if American spy movies have taught me anything, it’s that secret agents are never allowed to leave scot-free.
In most respects Frederic Schoendoerffer’s film goes for grounded realism, although a character’s miraculous survival after a brutal car crash and subsequent explosion doesn’t seem all that “real” to me. Also, James Bond had less “license” than Cassel’s George, who in the quest to uncover his employer’s secrets, basically goes around Europe killing at will. He also ends up killing three fellow agents, although judging by his employer’s nonchalant reaction to this, maybe he knew what he was doing after all. I guess these guys are only ticked when their agents want to get a job at the local HEB. Kill a couple of agents? Oh well.
The script, credited to the director and four others, seems to go out of its way to make the storyline as convoluted as possible, only to indulge in an ending that redefines the phrase “going out with a whimper”. As a spy movie, “Secret Agents” is lacking in all the things one expects out of what has become accepted as “spy movies”. Granted, I believe “Secret Agents” is probably very close to the real thing, more so than James Bond and his legion of suave secret agents. Then again, I wasn’t exactly looking for the “real thing”, so in that respect the film was a bit of a letdown.
On the flip side, taken as what it is, “Secret Agents” is surprisingly engaging, mostly due to little minor touches that fill up the first hour when the agents are prepping for their mission. Little details like two of the spies getting hit on at the airport, and then later at the hotel pool. Also, Lisa and George’s unspoken relationship is intriguing, the silent interplay between them buoyed by the real-life intimacy shared by the two leads. “Secret Agents” works best when it’s contrasting Lisa’s lack of enthusiasm for the job and George’s need for it. The best example of their differing perspectives is a scene where the two go for a swim, only to swim off in separate directions after a brief, silent look.
But again, if one is searching for a spy film in the traditional sense, then “Secret Agents” will surely disappoint. There is action in the second half (probably too many, considering the complete lack thereof in the first), but I’m not sure if it’s worth the effort. And of course a very melancholy Monica Bellucci doesn’t exactly light up the film any, especially since it takes very little for the beautiful Italian actress to go luminous. “Secret Agents” can’t help but be dry and plodding, although one suspects this is how real spies actually operate during missions. Then again, not many people go to the movies to watch “real” spies when James Bond and Jason Bourne are so much more exciting.
Fr’d’ric Schoendoerffer (director)
CAST: Vincent Cassel …. George
Monica Bellucci …. Lisa
Andr’ Dussollier …. Colonel
Charles Berling …. Eugene