Directed by: Cédric Jimenez || Produced by: Hugo Sélignac, Vincent Mazel
Screenplay by: Audrey Diwan, Cédric Jimenez || Starring: Gilles Lellouche, Karim Leklou, François Civil, Adéle Exarchopoulos, Kenza Fortas, Cyril Lecomte
Music by: Guillaume Roussel || Cinematography: Laurent Tangy || Edited by: Simon Jacquet || Country: France || Language: French
Running Time: 105 minutes
Given my positive experiences with multiple François Civil genre movies under different directors (The Wolf’s Call , Burn Out ), I decided to give Cédric Jimenez’s BAC Nord, known overseas as The Stronghold, a try on Netflix upon spotting the actor’s eccentric hair and makeup in a trailer. The Wolf’s Call portrayed Civil as a submarine sonar operator, Burn Out saw him as a professional motorcyclist coopted by the Romani mob, and here in BAC Nord he portrays a hardened police detective in the southern French city of Marseille. The film, so named after the French national police squad (brigade anticriminalité, or BAC) that combats violent street crime, visualizes the poverty of northern Marseille Muslim projects from the perspective of these aggressive plainclothes officers with no apologies. If you find yourself weary of police brutality in the modern age or abhor the politics of Rassemblement National (National Rally) under the Le Pen family, The Stronghold won’t comfort you. On the other hand, Jimenez and cowriter Audrey Diwan base their script outline on true events surrounding numerous Marseille BAC officers accused of racketeering and drug trafficking in the 2010s, so few could accuse the film of heavy-handed bias either way.
You’ll recognize cinematographic overtones of everything from The Wire (2002-2008) to Mesrine (2008) to A Prophet (2009) to The Divines (2016) in The Stronghold. In addition to its urban backdrops bustling with pedestrian activity, director of photography Laurent Tangy emphasizes handheld camerawork anytime the story’s primary characters move through the Marseille ghettos or confront gangsters on the street, which is a considerable percentage of the film’s well paced 105-minute runtime. Everything from Steadicam tech to run-and-gun, cinema verité–style handheld without motion-stabilizers gets a chance to shine, here, and this street-friendly cinematography escalates tension better than the script in many instances. Together with multiple powerful montage sequences and a memorable hybridized hip hop/rock ‘n roll soundtrack, BAC Nord is as charismatic as the most stylish crime dramas from any national film industry in recent years.
It’s in The Stronghold’s inconsistent screenplay and cast where the movie runs into problems. For one thing, too many of the character-building sequences between our main police trio of Gilles Lellouche, Karim Leklou, and François Civil (Civil is billed third, in fact) revolve around castmembers yelling at each other over investigative protocol, which grows repetitive, and much of the family drama of costar Leklou is uninteresting. Jimenez tried, I’m sure, to make the latter the beating heart of our police team, but Leklou gives a weak performance that takes away valuable screentime from the far better actors of Lellouche, our emotional, tortured lead, and Civil’s suave bad boy. Even the presence of Blue is the Warmest Color’s (2013) Adèle Exarchopoulos as a throwaway female love-interest can’t liven this subplot.
Most problematic of all, though, is how underdeveloped The Stronghold’s third act feels; the details of the script’s alleged real-life inspirations aren’t given enough time to breathe and, in hindsight, feel almost like an unearned M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist relative to the earlier part’s more conventional police procedural structure. In short, our main trio of police officers are arrested by internal affairs for bending the law in their pursuit of justice, and the narrative’s intimate focus on their investigative point of view makes us sympathize with their utter disbelief at this law enforcement oversight. The main problem here, as mentioned above, is how this final act doesn’t mesh with the first two acts tonally. Kenza Fortas’ scenes as a crucial informant come across as the biggest wasted potential of The Stronghold’s conclusion, feeling more like obligatory plot beats rather than notable character beats in the overall screenplay.
What may save BAC Nord for crime drama enthusiasts like yours truly is its fantastic drug raid centerpiece at the film’s halfway point. Lellouche, Leklou, and Civil lead a heavily armed brigade into the heart of a narcotics gang’s territory to intercept a major drug shipment at the latter’s stash house a la The Raid (2011), and the set-piece is the highlight of Tangy’s handheld photography. It’s paced to perfection, too, as all three of our major characters face imminent peril at some point during this extended sequence; actors race across courtyards after drug dealers, dealers toss goodie bags to each other running in the opposite direction, riotous bystanders and armed gangsters stare down tactical police officers, and a shootout explodes in a cannabis greenhouse before the end. It’s great stuff!
Cédric Jimenez’s inability to square his film’s two main components — the investigative narcotics policework and the law enforcement oversight commentary — are what limit my recommendation of BAC Nord. The film is slickly produced and well paced, but if the filmmakers had to include the true life-material about alleged police corruption, then that second element should’ve been explored in better, even if tangential, detail in the film’s superior first two acts. These criticisms would require a longer runtime, of course, something opposite of what I normally advocate for most popular cinema (see also bloated, FX-driven Hollywood blockbusters and longwinded, 3-hour[!] Hindi melodramas), but The Stronghold’s narrative shift in its final stretch isn’t given enough room to breathe. In light of that, I regret to inform the public that François Civil, my current preferred leading man in French cinema, fails to go 3/3 in my initial sampling of his filmography.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Topical and effective in many ways but also scatterbrained in its narrative approach, BAC Nord struggles with an inconsistent cast, mediocre character development outside of the policework sections, and an undercooked third act twist.
— However… François Civil continues his streak of strong genre film performances, while lead Gilles Lellouche is almost as good. The nonstop tension, pacing, and musical accompaniment of the street detective work is engrossing, the drug raid in the Marseilles projects most of all.
— ON THE FENCE
? Why have I seen Adéle Exarchopoulos in nothing else since Blue is the Warmest Color?
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