It’s a well-established fact that I will watch and get something out of any picture that’s set “on the road,” and any movie set anywhere that stars Jean Reno.
That ethos isn’t given too severe a test by “4L,” (“4 latas”), a Spanish dramedy about old friends who set out to visit a third member of their former crew before he dies.
The hook here is that the friend, Joseba, is dying in Timbuktu. And as Joseba’s estranged daughter Ely (Susana Abaitua) tells and Tocho (Hovik Keuchkerian) and Jean Pierre (Jean Reno) when she meets them in Spain (actually, the Canary Islands), “If you really cared about my father, you wouldn’t go visit him by plane.”
The solution? A vintage Renault Paris to Dakar Rally car, a 1975 Renault 4L (four liters, or “latas” in Spanish).
We’ve seen lonely, drunken druggy Tocho literally chuck his security guard job, stripping the uniform off, on the street in front of his flat, keeping his boots. Jean Pierre isn’t hard to lure from his unsuccessful, half-forclosed Chateau du Soleil winery.
Ely? She’s young and tattooed with a pierced nose, no aims in life and given to picking up young men who never ever learn her name. It was her dad’s car, one he had restored in memory of treks the three guys used to make across the deserts of northwest Africa. She’s coming, too.
Maybe they’ll shoot a documentary about “”a grand adventure” through the “impenetrable desert” where “our cannot be return not guaranteed,” Jean Pierre narrates to Tocho’s camera, “a journey for humanity, for the love of Africa.”
Or maybe not.
At least Ely has Dad’s old journal, which Joseba (Juan dos Santos) narrates to her as she reads it, remembering a 1982 crossing in younger days, with a then-newer Renault 4L.
“Sin is what makes the world go round, and the desert is the epicenter of sin.”
Director and co-writer Gerardo Olivares (“The Lighthouse of the Whales, “14 Kilometers” and “Brothers of the Wind”) isn’t far from his comfort zone with this one. He serves up what you can only call standard-issue road trip/desert trek cliches — breakdowns, Third World (Morocco to Algeria to Mali) bribes, illness and romance, encounters with bandits, an old enemy, new friends and bemused stoners, old wounds and new blunders.
“This is the desert,” we’re told, in Spanish, sometimes French and rarely English, with subtitles. “Something happens at the last minute, and you get another chance.”
And as it drifts along and occasionally sputters to a halt, you either go with it’s picaresque pokiness, enjoying Reno’s grumping and diarrhea gags, appreciating the Keuchkerian (“The Night Manager,” “Assassins Creed”) spin on an ill-tempered burnout, or you won’t.
As the crew finagles its way through checkpoints, putters across the almost trackless wastes of the Sahara and exults in the “freedom” of Africa, all set to a lovely, sensitive world music/folk-rockish soundtrack by Yuri Mendez and the Cube, I almost did.
It’s not quite cute enough, not nearly as funny as you’d hope (although there are laughs, a checkpoint drug dog named “Gadaffi” for one) and not anywhere near as deep as Olivares seems to believe.
“4L” is set in Africa and feels like Africa, but that grounding flow of Africa into your soul that one character promises never happens.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Cast: Jean Reno, Hovik Keuchkerian, Susana Abaitua, Juan Dos Santos
Credits: Gerardo Olivares, script by Olivares, Maria Jesus Petrement and Chema Rodríguez. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:44