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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema

‘AKA’ (2023): Men on Fire

Directed by: Morgan S. Dalibert || Produced by: Rémi Leautier

Screenplay by: Morgan S. Dalibert, Alban Lenoir || Starring: Alban Lenoir, Eric Cantona, Thibault de Montalembert, Sveva Alvit

Music by: Etienne Forget || Florent Astolfi ||  Edited by: Tianes Montasser || Country: France || Language: French

Running Time: 122 minutes

Hard-boiled French crime films have become a thing of mine over the past several years, though my general interest in the contemporary French gangster picture dates back at least as far as Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009) over a decade ago. Though I took a good chunk of the 2010s to familiarize myself with the influential French New Wave (~1950s-1960s) works of Jean-Luc Goddard, Alain Resnais, Francois Truffaut, etc., themselves a subset of European Modern Cinema (~1950s-1970s; see Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, etc.), eventually I made my way back to the streamlined genre films of international cinema that, I feel, are more universally appealing than either (a) boring, self-important dramas or (b) bloated, FX-driven blockbusters.

Netflix’s distribution and occasional direct financing of non-English language genre films has aided my exploration of modern French thrillers, crime dramas, and action movies, including the filmography of prolific actor Francois Civil (Burn Out [2017], The Wolf’s Call [2019], BAC Nord [2020]) and the feature directorial debut of newcomer Guillaume Pierret, Lost Bullet (2020, 2022), starring longtime stuntman Alban Lenoir and shot by director of photography Morgan S. Dalibert. The latter has become one of my favorite recent Netflix Original Films, so I was pleased to see Dalibert’s own feature directorial debut, AKA, co-written with and also starring Lenoir, chart on Netflix’s Top Ten Movies in the United States several weeks past. AKA (I assume the film’s acronymic title refers to the English phrase “also known as,” but I have no confirmation on this because the film’s marketing never specifies) isn’t the streamlined, purebred action piece the Lost Bullet films are, however, and instead Dalibert and Lenoir attempt, in some ways a more ambitious, but in others, more conventional hybridization of organized crime drama and hardcore action.

Former Manchester United center forward Eric Cantona stars as one of several — too many, really — antagonists in AKA.

As I often prefer, let’s start this film discussion with the good parts of our subject of interest. AKA retains the blunt, effective cinematic violence present in Pierret’s Lost Bullet, though concentrated in hand-to-hand combat and gunplay elements instead of car chase sequences. Multiple set-pieces, Lenoir’s infiltration of a gangster safehouse to rescue child actor Noé Chabbat most of all, are tense, well shot, and have some emotional resonance to them (i.e. they progress the story in some way). Former director of photography Dalibert doesn’t rely on excessive, showy Steadicam long-takes (the prologue’s modest introductory oner of Lenoir’s character is as far as the film goes) nor on ridiculous choreography, but rather a mix of clever blocking, diverse edits, and well composed blunt, relatable stunts. Underneath all that action, Lenoir is a decent enough, if not deep protagonist, while his costars all feel like real people with sensible motivations for their often extreme actions.

Sounds good so far, right? AKA orchestrates its screenplay around federal law enforcement and/or black operations officer (again, this information is never clarified) Lenoir’s infiltration of a Parisian crime family led by former professional footballer Eric Cantona; Lenoir’s end goal is to track down an alleged South Sudanese terrorist (Kevin Layne) Cantona is sheltering, but the increasingly personal relationships Lenoir builds with Cantona’s estranged family members complicate this goal; at the same time, Lenoir’s handler, Thibault de Montalembert, harbors corrupt intentions of his own thanks to his boss, politician Philippe Résimont, who is connected to various French colonial interests in north Africa.

If that sounds like too much ground to cover in the space of two hours (122 minutes to be exact), then I would agree with you. AKA’s main problem is how these various subplots never congeal and the overarching narrative feels like 2-3 screenplays smashed into one. If this story was spread out over a 4-6 hour limited series, the many character arcs of the bloated supporting cast would have room to breathe; as the film stands, AKA feels torn between Lenoir’s relationship with Chabbat (the diegetic son of Cantona), Lenoir’s undercover operation within the greater crime family, and the anti-terrorist/black operations mission to nail Layne. At least one of the aforementioned plot threads needed to go. I feel the budding friendship between Chabbat and Cantona, a surrogate parent-child dynamic common to many action films (e.g. Man on Fire [2004], The Man from Nowhere [2010], Logan [2017]), is meant to be the heart of the film, but is shortchanged by not only too many action sequences but also the remainder of the hybridized crime drama/military procedural plot.

Further problems revolve around the third act’s major plot twist, which is neither shocking given what the audience is shown earlier in the film nor interesting enough to give the narrative greater overall depth. The justification for Lenoir caring that much for Chabbat in the first place is also somewhat implausible given his character’s background and the grim implications of the prologue.

Combine all the aforementioned with far too many obvious, fake looking plugin FX like digital blood squibs, muzzle flashes, etc., and in total, AKA is more inconsistent than its pedigree and first act might imply. I struggle to be too critical of Morgan Dalibert’s directorial debut given how much it gets right, not to mention my respect for any action film that lets a nightclub brawl unfold via black-and-white security camera footage, but the movie has too many flaws with its script to recommend outright. That’s altogether a shame, because another rewrite or two and AKA could’ve been another fine addition to France’s ever growing catalogue of gritty crime sagas.

Alban Lenoir rescues Noé Chabbat (left) after steamrolling his way through enemy territory (right) in the film’s second act.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: With competent action cinematography and stuntwork, as well as a quality cast, AKA hints at a promising future for the alumni of Guillaume Pierret’s Lost Bullet franchise. I also cannot overstate what a relief it is to watch a quality action film or crime drama without a self-absorbed director of photography.

However… AKA’s screenplay either needed to go for broke with a mini-series format or strip 1-2 major plotlines from its narrative to better focus its story. The film ends on a wet fart that undercuts much of what came before, while a variety of cheap digital FX lesson the impact of its otherwise impressive action sequences.


? If this federal agency/black ops cell/mercenary unit can just assassinate most of the villains at will, then why didn’t they do that from the start?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


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