Crime fiction has long been fascinated by the fuzzy line between crooked cops and the criminals they are meant to chase. The new French film “Rogue City” tramples it, positing that corruption is pervasive and we live in a hopeless, brutal world from which there is no escape. It’s a bleak vision that makes Olivier Marchal’s movie radical in its nihilism.
Unfortunately, “Rogue City,” which is streaming on Netflix, is also an ineffectual muddle. This is somewhat surprising coming from Marchal, a former police officer turned writer-director who displayed storytelling chops while exploring murky moral quandaries in both features like “36th Precinct” and entertainingly gonzo series like “Braquo.” Here it’s hard to tell what’s going on — and, by extension, care — in a war between rival police factions and rival gangs duking it out in Marseille. (The original title is “Bronx,” the borough name having become French slang for a messy situation.)
Aside from a perfunctory early assault on a bar, Marchal makes do without set pieces: no ratcheting of tension, no elaborate chases (not even by foot, despite the tantalizing presence of David Belle, a key figure of parkour and the star of the cult movie “District B13”). Instead, we get … not much at all.
Lannick Gautry is broodingly handsome as the designated lead, Richard Vronski — this is the kind of thriller that features a conversation about “Anna Karenina” and sets a gunfight to a baroque aria. But the part is a walking cliché and Gautry barely stands out in a sea of grim dudes dressed in black.
More interesting are the beloved veterans who fill key supporting roles: Jean Reno as a grizzled police chief; Gérard Lanvin as a grizzled clan boss; the Italian star Claudia Cardinale as a grizzled Corsican matriarch. Every time they turn up, “Rogue City” finds a pulse. And then it’s back to men staring at each other, clenching their jaws.
Violent, law-defying cops would be a tough sell at any time, but “Rogue City” is oblivious to the changed context surrounding their stories. They don’t hold much romantic allure nowadays.
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes. Watch on Netflix.