An honest question: Is there still any real popular stigma against foreign films? As European art cinema gained traction stateside in the middle of last century, challenging and even scandalizing Hays Code Hollywood-era audiences with form and content was most of the point. Now American blockbusters keep one eye on overseas receipts (Steven Spielberg doesn't care if you've heard of his upcoming Tintin, but fans across Europe are already in line), and film industries abroad—many of them state-supported—do their best to compete in the marketplace while the indies take care of the art.
All that's really left to challenge a general audience is wall-to-wall subtitling. As many video rental customers took the time to remind me when I explained the difference between the dubbed and subtitled VHS copies of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: If they had wanted to read, they would have gone to the library.
The subtitle-averse, then, have probably been missing out on the string of well-crafted, multiplex-ready action thrillers coming out of France in the past few years, typified for better and worse by Fred Cavayé's Point Blank. The setup is a winner: After nurse's assistant Samuel (Gilles Lellouche) makes the brave mistake of thwarting a hopsital-room hit, his pregnant wife is abducted and he's forced to get targeted patient Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem) outside the confines of the now police-swarmed hospital.
Samuel has our nervous sympathies from the start, but it's the ambiguity of his task that distinguishes Point Blank early on. Both Sartet's proxies and his would-be assassins seem capable of such a repellent gambit. Is Samuel removing Sartet from a vulnerable position, or leading him to an easier doom? And is either situation at all likely to turn out well for anyone? There's a layered tension as they mount their escape. The answers fill out sooner or later, but in the meantime Samuel has no other choice, so the action propels as it teases.
It's a shame, then, that Point Blank grudgingly reveals this thoughtfulness, and other flashes throughout, as happy accidents in a needlessly lumpy conspiracy thriller. There's a fine shock, for instance, when the villain of the piece is finally revealed; it's one of the few moments of violence in a fairly violent film that leaves an impression. But the effect, along with any ambiguity about the conspiracy or Sartet's own motivations, is spoiled by a comically thorough exposition dump, complete with a helpful flashback and the introduction of a key character that never actually ends up factoring into the story.
Such an awkward move in the middle of perfectly good intrigue would be more than enough to spoil the continuity of Point Blank's suspense, but the miscalculations don't end there. Gaps in logic abound, particularly in an early scene where only the running time benefits from not reuniting Samuel with his wife and sending them on their merry way. Even the film's endgame is predicated on an implausible citywide outbreak of violent crime that leaves police headquarters chaotic enough for Samuel and Sartet to infiltrate it. It's a sad slope for the conspicuously symmetrical film to take: The opening hospital escape is made richer by circumstance, while its climactic counterpart is nearly undone by stumbling beyond contrivance.
If there's anything to credit to Hollywood's influence, it's that boneheaded choices don't stop the moment-to-moment action from engaging. Cavayé has at the very least a flair for the chase, and he's chosen a terrifically ballsy everyman in Lellouche; Samuel's quick thinking is evident from his initial scramble to save Sartet's life, and it serves him in exciting ways throughout the film as he flees cops and baddies. And contrivance aside, the set piece at the police station is memorable. Narrative threads are set on a close-quarters collision course by cutting across multiple points of view, and each missed connection (aided by strong editing and sound design) alternately frustrates and relieves to great effect.
In the end, though, Cavayé's film misses some crucial cues from the already middling American films it aspires to—particularly in the unfulfilling fate of its big bad guy—which makes the unapologetic imitation more dire. (Overall, Point Blank has less to do with the legacy of French cinema than the New Wave-influenced John Boorman/Lee Marvin joint with which it shares a name.) At the very least, whoever is tasked with the inevitable English-language remake will only have to punch things up a bit in preparation, and then even those who don't like to read their movies can share in the experience, apparently culturally universal, of sitting through yet another half-decent thriller.