A Gang Story
Though little known on these shores, Gang des Lyonnais were a notorious heist team who ran roughshod over early 70’s France. Lead by Edmond Vidal they spent four years pulling off daring armed robberies and grabbing headlines across the country before their spree ended in spectacular arrest in 1974. Now with his fourth full length feature, policeman turned filmmaker Olivier Marchal seeks to tell their story. Yet Marchal’s focus is not solely set on the gang’s dirty deeds as moustachioed young outlaws. He is also interested in the group as older, wiser men and thus A Gang Story comes with that now familiar true crime structure of duelling narratives set decades apart.
Edmond Vidal (Lanvin), nicknamed Momon, now retired, reformed and rich, is preparing for his golden years with his loyal wife Janou. Though still surrounded by ex-gang friends and younger wannabes, he is mostly keeping his hands clean and looking forward to watching his grandchildren grow up peacefully. Trouble appears, however, in the form of Serge (Karyo), his one-time best friend and co-founder of Gang des Lyonnsais, who did not tread the path towards legitimacy. Still involved heavily in drug trafficking and wanted dead by a notorious drug baron, Serge is arrested by top cop Max Brauner (Catalifo). Momon and his ex-gangster pals have a choice to make: re-enter the criminal world they left behind to bust out their old running buddy or do nothing and leave him to face prison and almost certain assassination inside. As Momon aches over the decision he reminisces about he and Serge as young men (played by Storoge and Chantreau), and their development from petty drunken tearaways to politically funded armed robbers.Given the subject matter, setting, historical context and style the obvious recent reference point for A Gang Story is Jean Francois Richet’s Mesrine films. Certainly they share common background, both being ripped from the French headlines of the late 60’s and 70’s. Also, like Mesrine, Marchal’s film is interested in highlighting the closeness between the French political and criminal classes, particularly in those decades. Yet, while superficially cut from the same cloth, under close inspection A Gang Story displays a far paler, plainer design than Richet’s explosive double bill. Where Mesrine pulls us by force into the world of its bizarre, charismatic, destructive protagonist whether we are willing to go there or not, A Gang Story makes the classic crime movie mistake of assuming the viewer is fascinated by criminals simply because they commit crime.
Not helping matters is a derivative plot which becomes quickly predictable once the archetypal characters (the reluctant, honourable ex-criminal, the wild, destructive old croney, the faithful, pleading wife) have been introduced. Scene after scene we are dogged by the feeling that we have watched this all before and that’s because we have. Not only that but we have seen it done better. Though A Gang Story is blessed with a terrific cast and Lanvin, Duval and Karyo all deliver commanding performances, the hackneyed nature of the dialogue and development can only allow them to give so much.
This is not to say that A Gang Story is worthy of complete disregard, just that anyone in the market for something fresh may want to take their ticket money elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you are after 100 minutes of standard, flashy crime fare and you don’t like surprises then you should find something to enjoy. One gets the feeling, however, that Marchal might have been hoping to deliver something more substantial than that.