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France’s most successful local film of all time is still Dany Boon’s entertaining send-up of North-South differences, Welcome to the Sticks, from 2008, which sold an unheard-of 20.5 million tickets in a country where even the biggest blockbusters rarely attract more than 5 million pairs of eyeballs. The films Boon has directed since then, Nothing to Declare (8 million admissions) and Superchondriac (5 million), have also been hits but saw diminishing box-office and creative returns — and that trend unfortunately continues with his latest, R.A.I.D. Special Unit (RAID Dingue).
An awkward mix of action film, terrorist plot, a-propos-of-nothing 1980s cross-dressing homage, romantic drama and wannabe screwball comedy, this ungainly concoction feels like the result of a mixed-media or sampling-collage experiment gone horribly wrong. What’s worse, there’s barely a funny gag to be found in the film’s plodding 105 minutes. Beyond territories where Boon is a brand name, this will be a very tough sell. At home, this February release ended up with just less than 4.5 million tickets sold, which is something of a miracle given the product on display. The pic had its international premiere at the Beijing Film Festival and will next play at COLCOA in Los Angeles.
Action comedy might be one of the hardest genres to get right because the basic fundamentals of action and comedy are almost mutually exclusive, with suspense and jokes requiring different rhythms and laughs tending to deflate any tension the action scenes might require or generate. As a director, Boon doesn’t have a lot of experience in the action arena, either, and the biggest problem with his otherwise fairly solid Nothing to Declare was the few moments in which things such as an ineptly staged car chase hijacked the narrative. It’s certainly commendable that Boon wanted to try something different for his latest directorial outing, but the problem is that this former standup comedian’s forte is creating crazy-but-lovable characters that are stuck in equally crazy situations, but instead here we get a whole lot of other … stuff.
As in his biggest hits, Boon plays second fiddle to the lead character and for the first time in the Booniverse, his protagonist is a woman: Johanna Pasquali (Alice Pol, from Superchondriac). She’s a cop who lives for her job even though she’s very bad at it, not only over-eager but frequently dangerous rather than simply maladroit. Completely unaware of her own staggering incompetence, Johanna also isn’t likely to receive any kind of reality check from either her milquetoast fiancé, Edouard (Patrick Mille), or her overprotective father (Michel Leblanc), who happens to be a cabinet minister.
It is the latter who finally pulls some strings to make Johanna’s biggest and most unrealistic wish come true and have her enroll in a training course of the R.A.I.D., an elite law enforcement unit not unlike the SWAT teams in the U.S. Her instructor at R.A.I.D. boot camp is the uptight and stern Eugene Froissard (Boon), who has never had to deal with a woman as a recruit before. One of the film’s supposed running gags is the divorced Froissard’s hatred of women, a condition supposedly created or worsened by the fact that his wife left him for his brother. The problem is that macho attitudes and careless misogyny are quite the opposite of funny in real life and that the film doesn’t comment on or package his inevitable transformation in any meaningful way other than — spoiler if you’ve never seen a movie in your life! — make Froissard fall for Pasquali’s klutzy wannabe-cop character.
Boon wrote the film with Sarah Kaminsky, but there’s hardly any evidence in the film that a woman helped nuance its depiction of its accident-prone female protagonist. One of the most cringe-worthy jokes in the film revolves around the fact all the other R.A.I.D. recruits, all males, jump at the opportunity to be Johanna’s roommate, for example, while Edouard’s only discernable worry seems to be that the tough police work will somehow end up making his fiancée less feminine. These kind of retrograde gender politics aren’t just unfunny but are also, in the 21st century, embarrassing.
Making things even worse is the appearance of two cross-dressing Serbian heavies (played by Yvan Attal and Sam Mirhosseini, respectively French and Iranian) who have gone undercover during a Pride parade in Paris. They end up fielding clueless questions about them as a supposed couple, like who is the “man” and who is the “woman” in their relationship, the kind of thing that perpetuates stereotypes about the submissive position of women in relationships as well as entirely disregarding the intimacy of gay men’s sex lives for a joke that’s not only offensive but was already done with a smidgen more finesse in the Le Splendid repertoire from the 1970s.
The supposed jokes and gags aren’t the only things that are sloppily written as the feature also has structural issues. For Pasquali and Froissard to fall in love without ending up in a moral quagmire, for example, Pasquali’s fiancé needs to be dispensed with at a certain point. Sidelining an unsuitable suitor is standard practice in romantic comedies, though Boon seems completely uninterested in Edouard before finally doing away with him in a way that feels rushed and unconvincing even for a supposedly broad comedy.
The film’s piece-de-resistance is a terrorist attack on a gathering of heads of state at the sumptuous grounds of Vaux-le-Vicomte castle, something that doesn’t lend itself easily for comedy, especially in a world where terrorist attacks in France are a real threat. There’s not only barely a laugh to be had in this sequence, but Boon is also completely out of his depth here in terms of directing the action and stunts. He throws pyrotechnics and second-rate visual effects at the screen like Jackson Pollock flung paint at his canvases, hoping it looks spectacular just because there’s so much of it. Of course this tactic completely backfires, taking the lonely viewer who might have still been following Johanna’s delirious plan to be a good cop come hell or high water out of the story. Somewhat oddly, the composers, Michael Tordjman and Maxime Desprez, seem to have missed the memo there was action as well as comedy on the menu, with their music never used to generate any tension, instead playing merrily along to the mild stabs at comedy.
The French title, RAID dingue, contains an untranslatable pun, with the title sounding both like “Crazy R.A.I.D.” (as in the unit) and something like “completely crazy.” The film certainly feels completely crazy, but not in the way the makers probably intended.
Production companies: Pathé, Les Productions du Ch’timi, TF1 Films Production, Artemis Productions
Cast: Alice Pol, Dany Boon, Michel Blanc, Yvan Attal, Sabine Azema, Patrick Mille, Francois Levantal, Anne Marivin, Florent Peyre, Alain Doutey, Urbain Cancelier, Sam Mirhosseini
Director: Dany Boon
Screenplay: Dany Boon, Sarah Kaminsky
Producer: Jerome Seydoux
Executive producer: Eric Hubert
Director of photography: Denis Rouden
Production designer: Herve Gallet
Costume designer: Laetitia Bouix
Editor: Elodie Codaccioni
Music: Michael Tordjman, Maxime Desprez
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