The Crimson Rivers (Les Rivieres Pourpres)

on June 29, 2001 by Paul Clinton
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   Mathieu Kassovitz's startling command of the film medium is on display again in "Crimson Rivers." Kassovitz, the director of the incendiary "L'Haine (Hate)," has an almost instinctual ease behind the camera. But the young French director is not always able to connect the narrative dots: An absurd ending mars this otherwise gripping thriller.

   Based on Jean-Christophe Grange's novel "Blood Red Rivers," the movie follows two cops--one a frayed loner (Jean Reno), the other a fearless hipster (Vincent Cassel)--as they investigate the murder of a library aide at an exclusive university isolated in the Swiss Alps.

   The strange and grisly killing--the boy is found curled in the fetal position with his hands and eyes missing--eventually leads Reno's Pierre Niémans to Max Kerkerian (Cassel), who is investigating the desecration of a tomb with swastikas. If it sounds political, it's because it is. Kassovitz has always injected his movies with charged political confrontations as a way to create drama and suspense. His characters consistently have political, not personal, motivations. In that way he is closest in spirit to Spike Lee. This time, the approach gives a routine thriller much more depth.

   Kassovitz has also studied Hitchcock; his murder-mystery unfolds against the exotic snow-covered mountains and alpine lodges of Switzerland (like Hitchcock's 1934 version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much"). He also throws in a reference to the "eye shot" in "Psycho."

   Some may blast the film as derivative, but that ignores the playful skill of Kassovitz's style. He throws it all at the wall--even tossing in a neat martial-arts sequence--and most of it sticks.

   Jean Reno's portrayal of a veteran cop on the razor's edge has a calmness that's preferable to the hysteria a bad actor would bring to the role. He's more of a burnout. Cassel is also good as a cocksure detective.

   The movie's awful ending should have been revamped before the camera rolled.    Starring Jean Reno, Vincent Cassel and Nadia Fares. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz. Written by Jean-Christophe Grange and Mathieu Kassovitz. Produced by Alain Goldman. A TriStar release. Thriller. Rated R for violence/grisly images and language. Running time: 104 minutes.

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