22 Bullets

Jean Reno is not as well known as he should be on this side of the Channel, but with the release of 22 Bullets (originally L’Immortel) that could all be about to change. An old-fashioned mobster film with an intriguing twist that flies in the face of films like The Godfather – the protagonist is a reluctant murderer who gradually kicks the habit of shooting people in the forehead, rather than a good boy who is inexorably seduced by the charms of the Mob – there’s lots to think about on the way home. And if you’re not in the mood for shooting, there’s a cast of superbly hard French gangsters who do lots of thrillingly bloody things to each other. Win/win.


Charley Matteï (Reno) was trying to change. Once a gangster known as ‘The Psycho’, he surrendered his illegal interests to a friend and left the Marseilles mob scene for good to become a quiet family man. However, his was a world as hard to leave as it was to enter, and whilst taking his son on a day trip Charley is attacked by a hit squad of masked gunmen. Riddled with the eponymous 22 bullets, the former Godfather is left lying in his own blood against the wreckage of his car. He’s not so young any more – there’s no way he’ll survive. Is there?

Charley pulls through, and discovers that the hit against him was actually ordered by his oldest friend, crime boss Tony Zacchio (Merad). Although he is loath to return to his life of crime, when his best friend is brutally murdered Charley understands that he and his family will never be safe whilst the men who attacked him are at large – and vows to make them realise that the opposite also holds true. In hiding from Zacchio’s thugs and a determined detective (Marina Foïs), Charley must assassinate the seven would-be murderers and discover the identity of the elusive eighth man in the squad before his time runs out.

“They used to call him The Psycho. Now they call him The Immortal.”

Richard Berry has much more experience as an actor than a director, but he has produced a very well-balanced film which walks the tightrope between sensitivity and sensationalism with consummate skill. The dozen or so murders are viscerally realised and pull no punches, but there is never any sense of the plot relying on bloodshed or action – it is carried by a carefully structured script which flits between several groups of characters without ever losing its way. The setting in Marseilles is interesting and makes for some beautiful shots in the surrounding hills, as well as having an unexpected novelty value (I’m a bit sick of gunmen in Paris, myself). Reno is spellbinding as a conflicted man whose morals have always stood in the way of his shadowy career, and Kad Merad’s stuttering villain Zacchio is a genuinely intimidating character.

At times I felt the film was a little too reliant on generic ‘suspense’ or ‘tension’ music, but it is a minor criticism compared to the sheer number of things that 22 Bullets does very well indeed. Given the number of reviews floating across the pond which excoriate George Clooney’s new underworld flick The American, it’s a crying shame that it will inevitably outperform 22 Bullets. A credible and exciting thriller as well as a genuinely moving story about the difficulties of growing older in a world which is changing around you, this film has complexity and insight on a level to which Hollywood rarely aspires.

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