French actor Mathieu Kassovitz (‘Amélie‘, ‘Munich’) has had an erratic career as an occasional director. Generally, his work in France (such as his debut ‘La Haine’ or the thriller ‘The Crimson Rivers’) is well-received, but his attempts to work in Hollywood (‘Gothika‘, ‘Babylon A.D.‘) have been disastrous. For ‘Rebellion’, his latest attempt behind the camera, Kassovitz takes a page out of French history to make a pretty exciting military hostage thriller.
The film’s original French title ‘L’ordre et la morale’ translates as “Order and Morality,” which are the dominant themes. The movie tells the true story of the 1988 hostage crisis on the French colony of New Caledonia, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean over 10,000 miles from France. When a separatist group among the native Kanaky people attempts to stage a non-violent uprising, things go very badly. Several French gendarme soldiers are killed, and thirty more are taken hostage. As a result, the French government (in the midst of a heated presidential election) overreacts and sends a huge military presence to the island. Because neither of the political candidates (incumbent François Mitterand or challenger Jacques Chirac) wants to be perceived as soft on terrorism, the military escalation quickly grows wildly disproportionate to the actual situation. Loss of human life (i.e. the hostages) will be considered acceptable collateral damage to stomp out the rebellion as quickly as possible.
Kassovitz plays Philippe Legorjus, commander of a small squad from the GIGN, the Gendarmerie’s special operations unit. He’s given a limited amount of time to negotiate for the hostages’ release before the army lays siege to the island. Once he makes contact, he discovers that the separatists never intended to kill anyone, and feel very badly about the outcome of their actions. They’re willing to negotiate, so long as the government will acknowledge the legitimacy of their complaints. Unfortunately, Legorjus’ efforts to bring a peaceful resolution to this situation are stymied by both the overzealous army and unsympathetic politicians back home.
This is some juicy and thematically rich material, and Kassovitz makes a very exciting thriller out of it. The climax of the film is one of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in ages. At the same time, the movie is also a very mainstream, commercial effort. It feels just a little too slick for its own good. As an actor, Kassovitz is a bit too pretty and lacks the gravitas to fully sell the leading role. As a director, it’s obvious that he’s never seen a Vietnam War movie that he wasn’t in love with. No, the movie’s not set in Vietnam or even that time period, but it indulges in all the clichés of the genre, right down the montages of ceiling fans and helicopter rotors. You can tell that Kassovitz thought this was his ‘Apocalypse Now’ and really wanted to go for broke with it. I also wasn’t a fan of the generic military march musical score.
Even so, these are minor complaints. It’s a good movie. Promoted correctly by the right distributor, it stands a chance of doing well in North America and maybe even racking up some award nominations.