The classic elements of a thriller are by now well-established: a mysterious woman, a hapless schlub, well-dressed & dangerous men on their trail, double crosses, double double crosses, and a twist.
There’s always a twist.
Such is our familiarity with this kind of cinema that the pleasure of seeing a thriller is now as much in discovering how the filmmakers mix these elements, old wine in unexpected new bottles, as it is in watching that peculiar mix of danger and razor-sharp repartee that draws us repeatedly to the genre. Jérôme Salle’s Anthony Zimmer does all that, and does it well.
For veteran detective Akerman (Sami Frey), the trail has gone cold on criminal mastermind Anthony Zimmer, an enigmatic figure who acts as fixer and launderer for a Russian drug cartel. To make matters worse, Zimmer has recently had extensive plastic surgery, and nobody knows what he looks like. But Akerman has a final chance to catch the elusive man; his lover Chiara (Sophie Marceau) is to meet him on a train to Nice. Also waiting for him to surface are the Russian Mafia outfit Zimmer once worked for.
But Anthony Zimmer, ever ahead of the game, has sent word to Chiara: Get on the train, and find a man of a similar build and body-type to him, thereby throwing them off his scent. Thus enters François (Yvan Attal), nerdy translator, crime novel buff, bowled over by the sudden and strong attention of the beautiful woman, and the perfect fall guy for Zimmer’s scheme. Mistaken for the felon, on the run and hunted by the police & the Russians, François finds himself living out the kind of plot he only reads about — and with a far deadlier ending than he might like.
It’s a lean and precise plot, lithely prancing from beat to beat. Every cliche that one expects in a thriller, from parking lot showdowns to barefoot escapes in one’s pyjamas, are included, but it never feels stale or by-the-numbers. The plot is reinforced by a hundred little touches that may seem incidental, but are memorable (A new detective on the case shows up in a casual jacket & t-shirt, and Akerman tersely tells his aide, “Tell him to dress properly.” The next time the new man shows up dressed all dapper and expecting a comment from his boss, Ackerman ignores it, eyes always on the job at hand).
Characters are sketched out quickly and efficiently, and the leads are more than capable of pulling it off. While Frey quietly smoulders and steals every scene he’s in, Marceau is a handsome, vulnerable, entirely believable femme fatale. But the film belongs to Attal, whose François is both hopelessly out of his depth, and — thriller-buff that he is — keenly self-aware of the strange plot he finds himself in.
Denis Rouden’s immaculate cinematography deserves special mention too. Graphic and bold, the work is very ‘European’ in nature but not overly-stylised, a welcome relief from the heavily-processed, ‘edgy’ stuff that has come to be the staple of this genre in Hollywood (speaking of which, when this film is eventually remade in America — as The Tourist — I fully expect the cinematography to be edgy over-processed shaky-cam).
It’s hard to talk about a thriller without mentioning its twist (there’s always a twist, remember?). Anthony Zimmer’s twist is fun and satisfying, but any genre fan, looking over the mechanics of the set-up, will probably have guessed it by the time the film gets going. Still, the film is smart enough to know this, and does much to dissuade you, doing an admirable job of making you doubt your hunch. But if there’s one misstep to this movie (and it’s just a personal niggle of mine) then that is that it gives a little too much away. I would have preferred more ambiguity — the chopping of one short scene in particular (people who’ve seen it will know it as the one near the end with the safe) — as that would have made certain characters and their actions much more interesting and profound.
Regardless, this is a great little thriller that, paradoxically, it might seem, doesn’t mind taking its time. It knows that it doesn’t need an action set-piece or an explosion to keep its audience’s attention — quite a confident move, certainly for a director’s first feature film. The mark of a truly intelligent movie is not in how convoluted the plot is, but how simple — a grand machine set into motion at the flick of a switch, its complexity only understood after it has done its job.
In that respect, Anthony Zimmer is a fine machine.