‘Le Gang des Antillais’: Film Review

The Antillais Gang -Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Happiness Distribution
Lacks firepower.

Writer-director Jean-Claude Barny (‘Neg Marron’) chronicles the real-life exploits of a band of French Caribbean criminals in 1970s Paris.

Taking a fairly unknown true-crime story from the 1970s and turning it into a run-of-the-mill retro caper flick, Les Gang des Antillais (The Antillais Gang) depicts the travails of France’s seldom-filmed West Indian population, following a group of men who turned to armed robbery as a means to combat poverty and fight back against a nation that betrayed them. Adapted from Loic Lery’s autobiographical account by director Jean-Claude Barny (Neg Maron), this ambitious but flawed historical thriller has a few good tidbits and lots of predictable or otherwise poorly conceived moments, resulting in an initially promising piece of Gallic blaxploitation that never delivers.

Lery — named Jimmy here and played by Djedje Apali (Young & Beautiful) — was born on the French Caribbean island of Martinique and arrived in Paris in the early '70s, one of 70,000 “Antillais” who were relocated to the mainland under a national program known as BUMIDOM. (One hopes the French government was unaware of the various connotations of the word “bum” when they came up with that acronym.) Like many of his fellow emigrating islanders, Jimmy grew up to find himself facing few viable career prospects beyond a series of low-level civil service jobs, while also having to swallow the quotidian racism of other (white) Frenchmen of the epoch.

When the story (credited to Barny and an astounding five additional writers) kicks off, Jimmy is already teaming up for petty holdups with a band of rowdy West Indians, including the revolutionary kingpin Politik (Eriq Ebouaney) and the trigger-happy hophead Molokoy (Adama Niane). They’re a rather disorganized bunch despite their habit of dressing up in matching Reservoir Dogs-style jackets, and at best they manage to take down a few local post offices to earn what looks like mere pocket change.

As the gangster-story playbook dictates, Jimmy winds up falling for a good girl — in this case a nurse, Linda (Zita Hanrot from the award-winning Fatima) — while trying to extricate himself from the increasingly volatile gang of the title. It’s a typical “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in” scenario highlighted by a few curveballs, including Jimmy’s twisted relationship with a white family friend (Romane Bohringer) who winds up causing him major third-act problems, not to mention the site of actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz cameoing as a shotgun-wielding bartender.

Barny showed some promise for his 2005 helming debut Neg Marron, a gritty coming-of-ager set in Guadeloupe, but here he seems to be bogged down by all the period accoutrements — handlebar mustaches, Afro wigs, floral-patterned dress shirts, throwaway dialogue — as well as by a script that never moves beyond pure genre conventions. He ultimately eschews the more intriguing historical aspects of Jimmy’s plight for a very predictable fall-from-grace crime narrative, including the requisite prison redemption sequence. (There is one bizarre, rather off-putting prison-set scene, however, where Jimmy tries to one-up Billy Hayes in Midnight Express by forcing Linda to show him her private parts in the visiting room.)

It’s unfortunate that Barny doesn’t take better advantage of his subject matter, especially at a time when France’s growing black population is in dire need of adequate screen representation. And even if stars like Omar Sy (of Intouchables fame) have achieved significant box-office success over the last few years, there are still few quality French films dealing with characters and stories, or made by directors, of African or West Indian origin. At its best, Les Gang des Antillais tries to compensate for the lacuna by focusing on a little-known facet of recent French history, but in terms of a crime movie, it ends up shooting blanks.

Production companies: Les Films d’Ici, Special Touch, Studios United Films, Anaphi Fund, Invest Trace, TV Epuar, Happiness Distribution
Cast: Djedje Apali, Eriq Ebouaney, Adama Niane, Vincent Vermignon, Djibril Pavade, Zita Hanrot, Mathieu Kassovitz, Romane Bohringer, Lucien Jean-Baptiste
Director: Jean-Claude Barny
Screenwriters: Jean-Claude Barny, Philippe Bernard, Thomas Cheysson, Yves Nilly, Zoe Galeron, Fred Foret; based on the novel by Loic Lery
Producers: Sebastien Onomo, Serge Lalou
Executive producers: Shane Abbess, Steven Matusko
Director of photography: Claude Garnier
Production designers: Philippe Lacomblez, Arnaud Lucas
Costume designer: Vernonique Gely
Editor: Svetlana Vaynblat
Composer: Thibault Agyemang
Casting directors: Agnes Alberny, Valerie Paratte, Valerie Milon
Sales: Les Films d’ici

In French

Not rated, 90 minutes