Max (Mathieu Kassovitz) works as a welder by day and when at home is found slumped in front of the TV set, incessantly channel-hopping. Then one day, he is offered a new job opportunity – to become apprentice to contract killer Mr Wagner (Michel Serrault)…
Mathieu Kassovitz’s second feature, La Haine, stands as one of the defining films of the 1990s, a film bursting with directorial flair and confidence which also has something to say about a current, and still relevant, topic. So hopes were high for the follow-up. Cowritten with Nicolas Boukhrief, Assassin(s) is an expansion of Kassovitz’ 1992 short Assassins, the brackets in the title to distinguish it from the 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle of the same name. The film opened in competition at the 1997 Cannes Festival to a derisive reception. This DVD marks its first commercial release in the UK. Kassovitz has made two films since – the thriller Les rivières pourpres (The Crimson Rivers), a big hit in France but not elsewhere, and a clumsy horror film in the USA, Gothika.
Looking at Assassin(s) for the first time, ten years later, it’s easy to see what went wrong. On the plus side, it’s certainly very watchable in its very slick, at times positively flashy, way. Pierre Aïm’s colour camerawork (he also shot La Haine) is very stylish, and individual sequences are strikingly put together. Assassin(s) shows a director clearly brimming with confidence, and style nearly disguises content. Individual shots – whether intricately choreographed steadicam work or a combination zoom-in/time lapse shot of Max – are expertly brought off. Michel Serrault is impressive as the ageing hitman, who has pursued his trade with a craftsman’s precision for forty years or more, looking to pass on his skill and experience to someone younger. Kassovitz has worked better as an actor under other people’s direction (it’s notable that in others of his own films, he’s more usually taken minor roles) and he’s overshadowed by Serrault. Mehdi Benoufa is okay as Mehdi, a boy who looks up to Max in his turn. There’s a sharp turn in the plot, involving Mehdi and Max, half an hour before the end, which I won’t reveal.
On the other hand, the film is far too long at two and a quarter hours and is simply a very hollow piece of work. Kassovitz seems to be aiming at satire, of a consumerist society, of a non-stop barrage of meaningless, channel-hopped television images – but it all feels second-hand. At one point, Max watches a clip from a hardcore porn movie, no doubt the reason for the 16 rating the film had in France and certainly the cause of its BBFC 18 certificate: the violence isn’t especially graphic. In some ways the film harks back to the visually impressive if often superficial 80s generation of “cinema du look” – there’s a notable resemblance to Luc Besson’s Léon though making both mentor and trainee male removes that film’s rather queasy underage-sexual subtext.
Assassin(s) shows a young, undoubtedly talented director coming off a major hit and crashing to earth. Hubris followed by nemesis. While the film is certainly watchable and well worth a look for the curious, it shows that Kassovitz, for all his cinematic flair, said all he had to say (so far anyway) second time out. Viewers may wish to know that a scene in a nightclub, just over an hour in, features strobe lighting.
Assassin(s) is released as part of Optimum’s World line, and is encoded for Region 2 only.
The DVD transfer is in the original ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. The results are colourful but too soft – though bear in mind I didn’t see this film in the cinema. Blacks are a little muddy. This seems to be an interlaced transfer, and as such looked better on a CRT television set than it did on my PC monitor.
Dolby Digital in cinemas, Optimum could perhaps have provided a 5.1 soundtrack for this quite recent film. Instead we have a 2.0 track, which plays as Surround via Dolby ProLogic. Given the flashiness of the visuals, the sound mix is surprisingly lower-key, at least on this DVD, with the surrounds given over to Carter Burwell’s music score and some ambience. Unusually for an Optimum DVD, the subtitles are optional, if your French is good enough to do without them.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer, which runs all of 41 seconds.