Belmondo Stands (Kicks, Jumps, And Drives) Alone In Compelling Pair Of ‘80s French Action Flicks




French film icon Jean-Paul Belmondo emerged from the New Wave of the 1960’s as if the surly tough guys of French crime films past — Jean Gabin, Jean Servais, Lino Ventura, Serge Reggiani — suddenly gained a sense of self-awareness and even humor. Like those actors listed between em-dashes above, Belmondo’s unconventional good looks — in his case, a wide mouth and an ex-boxer’s broken nose over a barrel-chested yet trim physique — had a Bogart-like appeal for audiences who preferred a lived-in (and a lived-through) screen presence. As his dead-on impersonation of Burt Lancaster in Pierrot le Fou (1965), his overconfident slapstick derring-do in That Man from Rio (1964), or his death-defying, hair-raising comic stunts in The Burglars (1971) individually attest, Belmondo’s considerable range gave a warm and inviting dimension to the formerly cold and aloof image of the mean street warrior who still appeared to considerable advantage in trenchcoats and fedoras.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics release two Blu-rays this July from Belmondo’s mid-1970’s through the 1980’s run of French popcorn action flicks that, while wildly popular in Europe, have been little seen or appreciated in the United States. What becomes apparent in these highly entertaining films is just how much the mainstream allowed Belmondo to be perfectly Belmondo: the tough guy with a glint of comic mischief who is at once inherently compassionate, intractably rebellious, and not to be wrongly trifled with.

Le Professionnel adapts a 1976 British spy thriller by Patrick Alexander titled Death of a Thin-skinned Animal. Credited to screenwriter Michel Audiard, although mostly re-written by director Georges Lautner, Le Professionnel is re-set from its Anglo to a Gallic milieu, but moving the main action from London to Paris takes little away from the original’s shadow state exposé and instead imparts much scenic advantages to its wide boulevards and Empire architecture. With car chases down the former and terrace-hanging stunt work from the latter, Le Professionnel plays like an Old World revenge drama visited by modernistic mayhem.

Joss Beaumont (Belmondo) is a spy sent on a secret mission to assassinate North African dictator N’Jala (Pierre Saintoins). As the film opens, that mission has already failed, and Beaumont is sentenced by a corrupt kangaroo court presided over by Le President’s stooges to a life-term of life-shortening hard labor. The guerilla-trained Joss eventually escapes the shackles of his chain gang, standing off N’Jala’s death squads in a flamethrower-decimated village, and slowly makes his way back to international headquarters in France.

Two years have elapsed by this point, and the old code Joss sends back to his former superiors in the Foreign Service has long since been overwritten, but its message remains clear: Joss intends to carry out the mission as originally ordered. The political situation has changed in the interim, however, and N’Jala as a visiting diplomat to Paris is now a valued ally of the French government. Pursued by ruthless police commissaire Rosen (Robert Hossein) and a deadly assassin from his own department (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), Joss eludes the Paris police, the French government, and its entire spy bureau in a citywide manhunt that climaxes to spectacular effect at an impregnable castle in the picturesque countryside. There, the rogue super-spy ultimately uses the tools of his training against the corrupt organization who created him.

One of the top box office draws from its year of release in France, beat out only by Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Le Professionnel shows Belmondo in peak form, the swagger and sangfroid of his manner matched by the impossibly improvisatory inventiveness of his character. Leading the entire national body politic on the wildest of goose chases imaginable, the wit and panache exhibited on an ever-expanding scale by this rebel without a state — at one point even exploiting the media to hilarious effect in order to stroll calmly unfazed through a surrounding cordon of police — builds upon each succeeding set-piece while developing memorable side roles for a conflicted ally (Michel Beaune as his old friend Captain Valeras), a terrorized wife (Elisabeth Margoni), and a former colleague and secret lover (Cyrielle Clair as Alice Ancelin). Most memorable of all is Robert Hossein as Commissaire Rosen, whose underhanded techniques, including the adjective description of “terrorized” when Hossein unleashes a young and beautiful but violent and predatory female police interrogator (Dany Kogan) on Madame Beaumont (a bathroom-set scene which has to be seen to be adequately believed), decidedly earn his definitive yet strangely ennobled demise.

In the final analysis, a political thriller like many others, perhaps, skillfully executed by director Georges Lautner with all requisite and strongly visceral fight choreography and hair-trigger shoot-outs, but where Le Professionnel truly outdoes itself is Joss’s casual walk in the film’s closing moments out across the luxuriant palace gardens — the entire weaponry of the French secret service cross-view trained on his skull — towards a waiting helicopter ride he will never take. One might imagine that only Belmondo could play such a scene with anything approaching believability, the up-tempo jaunt and unflappable forward propulsion of his long strides marking the sculpted lawn with the resigned je ne sais quoi of cool jazz.

The Outsider (1983) builds upon the thematic position of the Belmondo figure — the renegade who lives by his own moral code — in a larger, social sense that may be apparent to English-speakers even in the film’s original French title of Le Marginal. From Marseilles to Paris, The Outsider shows the seamier side of French life in an action genre update of Belmondo’s classic crime films of the 1960s, such as those made for Jean-Pierre Melville and Claude Sautet, while also evincing a great deal of compassion for those on the literal margins; a social perspective the earlier, more conservative and strongly existential French neo-noirs may have eschewed.

In the rebel cop’s personal crusade against organized crime, director Jacques Deray takes his character on a deepening tour through arcade alleys, gambling dens, a leather bar, and the red lights district — with satisfying helicopter rides, gun battles, car and rooftop chases in between — for a veritable sociopolitical treatise on the international drug trade and its degrading effects on localized communities.

While never giving audiences a moment’s pause between fistfuls of popcorn, that is. Paris cop Commissaire Philippe Jordan (Belmondo) is newly assigned to Marseilles as the film opens, using his mandate to directly engage the infamous French Connection in terms immediately uncomfortable to small-time dealers, his corrupt superiors, and, above it all, to Mafia Don Sauvant Meccacci (Henry Silva). A helicopter jump onto a speeding boat and the seaswept destruction of millions of Francs’ worth of heroin later, Jordan is subsequently framed and quickly reassigned to an underground unit in Paris.

Uneasily settling back into the hidebound and by-the-book department, Jordan instead uses street-level tactics against the Meccaci organization, prowling the streets at night in citywide, underworld search of a possible informant named Freddy the Chemist (Michel Robin). With few allies, excepting a sympathetic colleague in his division, Inspector Rojinski (Pierre Vernier), Jordan finds himself doggedly struggling to protect an old friend in debt to Mecacci, the slot machine hustler Francis (Tchéky Karyo), and charmingly pursuing a romantic interest in the street-rescued Spanish prostitute Livia (Carlos Sotto Mayor). As Jordan’s peripheral pursuit at the outskirts of his organization escalates, so too does Meccacci’s deadly reprisals against Jordan and those near to him escalate.

But even as those closest to Jordan are mortally threatened, the solitary figure becomes all the more dangerous, and Meccacci’s neverending, tuxedo-dressed billiards game in his heavily-guarded penthouse suite — high above the empire of crime he reigns over — may yet fail to inexorably strike the red ball against the two whites.

Less straightforward than Le Professionnel, featuring a wildly diverging plot and several more narrative tangents in its discursive storytelling, The Outsider is nevertheless more satisfying in its thematic development of the title character, who seems effortlessly at home and charismatically compelling in his continued compassion for marginalia both in his life and on the streets. Moments where Jordan gives a sadistic police colleague an equally sadistic “lesson” in empathetic interrogation technique, or strolls in terms literally the opposite of homophobia through a sexually aggressive leather bar, or hilariously enacts a righteous beat-down on a pair of abusive pimps in a cramped dive-diner; this story-echoing pattern of character as opposed to a conveniently-building narrative arc allows Belmondo the actor, personality, and star an ideal vehicle to exhibit a unique accumulation of characteristics singularly Belmondo.

Appropriately, this reviewer’s favorite moment from The Outsider has almost nothing directly to do with revenge, Meccacci, or police work, but is rather Jordan’s mid-film rescue of a sixteen-year-old girl from a drug den at the impassioned request of her jailed father whom Jordan put away several years before. Bluffing his way through the dangerous setting, seemingly at home in any milieu which he happens to find himself, Jordan simply strides past a waiting line of rapists towards the drugged girl’s bed and helps her to her feet, supporting her down the stairs… pausing only to defuse a tense shoot-out situation with the offhand ease of a 52-year-old action star capable of bouncing off the windshield of a moving car or leaping midair from a flying helicopter. Capable of all this (and, as the evidence of the film shows, more), Jordan here uses the deadliest weapon in his arsenal — a brief and blinding flash of the considerable Belmondo personality — to put a desperate armed junky in his rightfully subdued place.

And yes, lest one was still wondering — and as clearly supported by successive plain-faced long shots of the unmistakable star leaping rooftop chasms and swerving ninety-degree street corners — Belmondo performed his own stunts. One of the more interesting comparisons made in the Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson commentary for Le Professionnel is the international emergence of Jackie Chan in the first Police Story (1985); a connection all the more intriguing when one considers the similar vein of humor, personality, and mind-boggling physicality in their respective performing styles. As the seasoned commentating trio make abundantly clear, Belmondo was very hands-on and financially, artistically, and personally invested in his action star vehicles; the choice of director, writer, and composer especially important to the best possible presentation of story and character. Continuing on some of these same production-level themes, Samm Deighan in her commentary for The Outsider similarly sings the praises of the Belmondo persona, speaking at length about how the chameleon-like adaptability of his undercover character is not unlike the actor himself, who could effortlessly switch between serious drama and broad comedy — along with violence and tenderness — on a film to film and even scene to scene basis.

Gamely capable of apparently anything onscreen — as a comparison to two other, earlier Belmondo films also released this month by Kino Lorber might show — these two films, like many of the star’s several other action vehicles of the period, have been frequently overlooked or more likely unseen by audiences outside of Europe. Possibly most familiar to American audiences from their Ennio Morricone scores (which, in watching/listening to both Le Professionnel and The Outsider, one might also feel that the lyricism of the former and the pulse-pounding rhythms of the latter effectively play against expectations), the films themselves are eye-openers equal to their arresting musical themes, Kino Lorber beautifully representing the respectively bold visuals of innovative New Wavers who themselves represent both France in Le Professionnel cinematographer Henri Decaë (Bob le Flambeur [1955]) and Germany in The Outsider cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger (Berlin Alexanderplatz [1980]).

Along with frequent mid-career collaborators in directors Georges Lautner and Jacques Deray, Jean-Paul Belmondo chose the very best to showcase the one and only Jean-Paul Belmondo. Like his characters, Belmondo might stand (kick, jump, and drive) alone, but his appeal remains compelling for its quality inescapably Belmondo.