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Weed and windmills. Pot and prostitutes. Ganja and gunfire. Rutger Hauer. If your film is called Gangsterdam, it’s probably impossible to avoid any of the aforementioned without being accused of false advertising. But the use of hoary and facile clichés isn’t the only problem in Romain Levy’s French action-comedy, which casts local heartthrob Kev Adams as a student who ends up chasing after a packet of drugs in the Dutch capital in the hope of impressing a tough girl. As is unfortunately the case with a lot of France’s recent comedic output, homophobia and racism are the source of many of the supposed jokes, with the filmmakers going the extra non-PC mile with a character who suggests there’s such a thing as “good rape” (as opposed to, you know, bad rape — don’t you just hate it when you’re the victim of the wrong kind of rape?).
Adams, a young standup comic turned unlikely teen idol, has starred in several of the biggest French box-office hits of the last couple of years, including Serial Teachers, The Adventures of Aladdin and The Date Coach, so his legions of tween fans are likely to turn out for this release as well. But outside of Francophone territories, the film’s best bet is being packaged with less stupid and less offensive fare.
First, the good news: 25-year-old Adams has finally stopped playing high-school characters, at least temporarily taking him out of the race for the oldest-looking high-school student this side of Andrea Zuckerman. In Gangsterdam, he’s Ruben, a nebbishy Jewish student at one of Paris’ many universities. How do we know Ruben is kind of a nerd who’s unlucky with the ladies? The film helpfully provides some hints. Firstly, Ruben wears glasses. Secondly, his 12-year-old brother (Talid Ariss) is a major player with a big mouth, less designed to seem even vaguely realistic than to make Ruben, twice his size and age, feel inadequate.
For those slow on the uptake, Ruben also tells the audience he’s not quite a hit with the opposite sex in a superfluous voiceover. The protagonist’s best buddy is the improbably named Durex (Come Levin), who, or so Ruben’s sunny commentary informs us, is both his childhood friend and a racist, anti-Semite and homophobe. Having this kind of childhood friend and not finding it any kind of problem or contradiction should be enough to set off the alarm bells of any woman with more than one brain cell, though apparently Ruben doesn’t seem to think anything of it. (And Adams’ likeable presence almost allows him to get away with it, too.)
Of course, the oh-so innocent Ruben is in love with an entirely unattainable fellow student, Nora (Manon Azem), of Maghrebi origins, so Durex can treat her to his enlightened views about Arabs. And women. But the Arab girl has an ace up her sleeve, or rather a packet in her backpack, and she turns out to moonlight as a drug mule for an unsavory type, Mishka (Many Payet, the star of Levy’s first film, Radiostars). Again, there’s so much negative stereotyping and red flags being raised that it’s a miracle that this is being packaged as innocent, mainstream entertainment.
Except for a cheap but effective running gag of sorts involving Lorant Deutsch — a French actor often ridiculed for having written a best-selling guide to “unknown Paris” — nothing much of substance happens until Mishka has sent Ruben and Nora to Amsterdam for a big job and Durex has, of course, decided to come along on this weekend trip unasked. One of their first scenes in the canal-lined city sees them smoke weed on a terrace in the Red Light District, immediately checking “pot” and “prostitutes” off the list of things French audiences expect to see in a film set in Amsterdam. But some mano-a-mano fighting that erupts there lacks both a clear motivation and spatially coherent action choreography, while their excuse to “borrow” some bikes so they can escape and cycle around stoned is just lame.
There’s one inspired and deliciously lowbrow sequence aboard a houseboat, where the trio have gone to look for the drugs they lost. It has been previously established that Ruben is a champion farter but that, unlike Nora, he doesn’t know how to produce silent farts. When the bad guys come aboard, the three all hide in separate places and Ruben is afraid that breaking wind will give away his presence, so he frantically starts texting Durex, hoping to get Nora’s number so he can ask her how to produce silent farts instead.
Though the entire pretext is of course extremely juvenile, Levy takes the sequence very seriously, with cinematographer Leo Hinstin using claustrophobic, larger-than-life close-ups and the Morricone-inspired score upping the ante musically. The whole thing plays out like a flatulence-laced pastiche of a 1970s genre film in which all the elements really come together to deliver punchline after punchline. It is also practically the only five minutes in the film that, while certainly immature, doesn’t need to rely on potentially offensive or otherwise just stupid dialogue or non-human behavior.
Unfortunately, the stars don’t realign like that again, with the threadbare story finally devolving into a ridiculous shootout at an estate run by Dolph (the reliably imperious Hauer). This Dutch head of a mafia clan is apparently so pretentious, he speaks English even to his own equally Dutch adult son (Alex Hendrickx, who has no clue where broad characterizations stop and ridiculously over-the-top ones start). Staged with little flair for either comedy or action, the scene is just a painful closing moment for a film that needed four screenwriters to come up with 100 minutes of often-questionable material.
Production companies: Les Productions du Tresor, Studiocanal, France 2 Cinema, Lunanime
Cast: Kev Adams, Manon Azem, Come Levin, Hubert Kounde, Mona Walravens, Alex Hendrickx, Ido Mosseri, Patrick Timsit, Manu Payet, Rutger Hauer, Talid Ariss
Director: Romain Levy
Screenwriters: Romain Levy, Mathieu Oullion, Remy Four, Julien War
Producers: Alain Attal, Emma Javaux, Marie Jardillier
Director of photography: Leo Hinstin
Production designer: Jean-Philippe Moreaux
Editors: Stephan Couturier, Thomas Beard
Casting: Emmanuelle Prevost
In French, English, Dutch
No rating, 100 minutes
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