Nerd followers know that I’m all about foreign crime movies these days, but two of the greatest crime imports of last year were not actually straight-up films but television miniseries. With The Red Riding Trilogy, about which the Nerd has already raved here at spinetingler, the UK proved they can produce a piece of lasting televised art just as bleak and thrilling as Breaking Bad in the US. Now the French have thrown their balls on the counter with a three-part miniseries of no small amount of badassery called Carlos, directed by Olivier Assayas of Demonlover and Summer Hours fame.
The film follows the 25 year terrorist/Marxist revolutionary career of Ilich Ramirez (AKA Carlos the Jackal) as he zips around Europe and the Middle East kidnapping, assassinating, and blowing up folks in the name of Palestine and whatever other causes will pay for his particular expertise. He starts out in the film a young up-and-comer in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, taking on daring missions and showing great nerve, intelligence and a willingness to kill anyone who gets in the way of the movement. After the hostage crisis he orchestrates in Vienna at the OPEC headquarters in 1975 (an insanely intense sequence that eats up a dizzying hour of the series’ five-and-a-half hour total running time), we watch him lap up the infamy of his feared public terrorist persona. He rides the terrorism boom times for a while, pulling off harrowing feats of harsh violence, but as the film goes on and the world changes our “hero” finds himself a man without a country, as no country wants to harbor him and his family, much less employ his murderous services.
Edgar Ramirez (who I only remember as the dude who boned Keira Knightley in that shitty Tony Scott movie Domino) hits every note beautifully while portraying this wonderfully complex character. Carlos is a man of great conviction for his leftist causes, claiming to be on the side of the oppressed against the imperialists, whoever those oppressed may be, yet he constantly displays bottomless reserves of vanity, a deep love of the finer things in life like good booze, flashy clothes, cool cars, and numerous sexy women. He’s a contradictory character in the best sense, in the sense that he feels less schizophrenic than he does just plain real.
Olivier Assayas keenly observes these contradictions with the fucking ridiculously assured style he brings to Carlos. Assayas manages to shift gears constantly yet in a consistent manner, the movie by turns sexy in its approach to its exotic locales and ever-cigarette-smoking characters, savage in its depiction of violence and terror, and often just plain bleak in the quietly human moments. This is a lived-in world, one that acknowledges the often straight-up erotic appeal of such a covert and thrilling jet-setting lifestyle as much as it shows its mellow-harshing drawbacks like the often endless and erratic down-times between operations and the severity and soul-warping brutality of the operations themselves. The highs are manic, the lows depressive, but the tone is never off, Assayas often fucking bringing the punk-rock cool then stomping on it with nerve-frying, chamber drama reality.
Because for all its Scorsese-infused style this an intensely human film, a portrait that neither lets Carlos off the hook nor unfairly judges him. When, late in the film, Carlos explains that he expects to die a soldier, shot by the oppressors while on a mission, we know that that’s no-bullshit what he thinks he truly is: a soldier. Despite whatever opinions you may have of his politics and the ways he violently expressed them, despite the type of life he lived and however that does or doesn’t live up to your expectations of a “true revolutionary,” Carlos will always think of himself as a Marxist revolutionary – history’s harsh light be damned. Olivier Assayas has given us Carlos’ history with all its warts firmly intact, but the Nerd will be goddamned if that history doesn’t thrill just as often as it challenges your perceptions and beliefs.