Whatever sway the police may have on the streets of Marseilles, in the high rise projects on its northern edges, the gangs run the show. The cops, even the elite “BAC” special squads, avoid them. Merely driving up earns a warning whistle, the international cry of “POPO,” and mobs descend on them — challenging, baiting and threatening the officers with badges.
That’s the setting of “The Stronghold,” titled “BAC Nord” when it played in France. This “inspired by a true story” is a “French Connection” that isn’t about the connection, a “District B-19” or “The Raid” without over-the-top mayhem, martial arts brawls or trigger-happy shootouts.
The anarchy and immigrant-led gang rule? That’s such a common refrain in French cinema, these days. A recent reimagining of “Les Miserables” and other films underscore that, or at least the perception of it.
“Stronghold” is a somewhat misshapen film, climaxing early, dragging out the anti-climax, playing out more predictably than you’d like or expect. As it begins with Gregory Cerva (Gilles Lellouche) getting out of prison, we know where this is headed.
Sgt. Cerva is a 20 year veteran of the force, leading his BAC 26 team — athletic Antoine (François Civil) and tough and hotheaded Yass (Karim Leklou) — into action, mixing it up with petty criminals, banging up the department’s Citroen station wagon as he does, which always gets him into hot water with the boss.
“We’re useless now,” Cerva grumbles (in French with subtitles, or dubbed into English). “The more we do, the less we achieve.”
A frantic car and motor scooter chase, filmed largely with hand-held cameras, opens the action and ends with the prospect of every movie cop’s worst nightmare — “paperwork.”
So they just go out and bust a street corner dealer they’ve been tipped about instead. We see them round up back alley sellers of endangered turtles, cadge free “Gypsy cigarettes” from informants and chase down their favorite pickpocket.
These guys have a casual corruption about them, and a need to “fill our quota” of arrests. So they prey on small fry.
But Antoine, a casual cannabis user, has this informant (Kenza Fortas) whom he’s a little sweet on. He bribes her with a cut from the hashish busts and can basically hit any number of low level dealers at will, just on her latest tip.
When a viral video of gangsters meting out rough justice to hapless residents of the various projects gets too much attention, word comes down from on high (Cyril Lecomte). “Take down the network!”
Might this informant give them the tip that helps them placate the boss, his boss the Prefect and the Mayor who wants “progress against crime” headlines? Maybe. But the price is sure to be high, and off the books.
“True story” or not, “The Stronghold” traffics in police procedural cliches. Yass is married to a dispatcher (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and they’re expecting a baby. Cerva is the grizzled, embittered loner and Antoine the youthful legs, the man-bunned hunk who leads the foot chases through the alleys, markets and projects of the city.
Husband and wife director/writer team Cédric Jimenez and Audrey Diwan (“The Man with the Iron Heart,” “La French” (aka “The Connection”) deliver decent chases, a “zoo” of a police station and a chaotic day-of-the-big-sting assault, mostly-filmed hand-held. The “preparations for the big raid” is mostly edited into a montage, a series of shakedowns of street dealers and hash users — cops just robbing people of drugs they just bought.
The film’s sole light moment comes when they nab a street dealing kid who spews abuse and spits and rages until that moment that Yass changes the station on the car radio and the punk gets lost in his jam as Cerva turns on the blue flashing lights for a joyride, dangerously weaving in and out of traffic just for kicks.
This Around the World with Netflix offering will be most striking to North American audiences for the contrast it paints between French police — reluctant to pull the trigger despite dire situations and roaring, provocative mobs yelling “Yo, come GET some, or get lost, pig!” — and their American counterparts. The French sure get pushed around a lot.
But the similarities are plentiful enough that you might be shouting at the screen at the lapses in the Internal Affairs investigation, with interrogations that turn table-tossing furious at the drop of a hat.
What did “Deep Throat” teach us? “Follow the MONEY.”
Sticking close to “the facts” ensures that “The Stronghold” turns into a bit of a grind. The over-the-top moments are restrained by that reality, and some pursuits, arrests and brawls seem so low-stakes as to undercut the whole enterprise.
We never see the faces of the top dogs in the drug trade, the “network” that the film’s climax wants to show broken up. The real villains aren’t there, but still. For a cops-and-drug-dealers thriller, it can be frustrating.
As William Friedkin (“The French Connection”) could tell our French filmmaking duo, it’s OK to end your movie with a somewhat deflating twist. But stretching it into a long anti-climax is a no-no.
Rating: TV-MA, violence, drug abuse, smoking, profanity
Cast: Gilles Lellouche, François Civil, Karim Leklou, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Kenza Fortas and
Credits: Directed by Cédric Jimenez, scripted by Audrey Diwan. A Canal+ film on Netflix.
Running time: 1:45