A Gang Story (Les Lyonnais): Film Review

Episodic French gangster saga shoots too many blanks

Based on the autobiography of a famous 1970s French gangster, this feature film might work better as a TV series.

A decade-spanning gangster epic that lacks both the stylistic grandeur of Goodfellas and the vibrant charisma of Mesrine, cop-turned-cineaste Olivier Marchal’s A Gang Story (Les Lyonnais) plays like one action-packed TV series squeezed into the confines of a feature film. Unlike the director’s grittier policier dramas 36th Precinct and MR73, this retelling of real-life criminal Edmond “Momon” Vidal’s turbulent career provides a predictable mélange of 70s kitsch and Mafioso clichés, yet sans a veritable emotional arc to accompany its flashbacking narrative. A cast top-lined by Gerard Lanvin (Point Blank), plus some local historical interest, will make for a decent killing in Gaul. Brisk overseas sales should bring in some offshore booty.

Famous for committing some of the most daring armed robberies in recent history, the Gang des Lyonnais – so called because they operated in the city of Lyons and its surrounding region – was one of several stick-up mobs that rocked France during its wave of grand banditisme throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. Along with Jacques Mesrine and the Paris-based Gang des Postiches (subject of the 2007 film Le Dernier gang), the Lyonnais managed to pull off a number of audacious heists with little-to-no bloodshed, playing cat and mouse with detectives and settling scores with rival clans in a deadlier fashion.

Adapted from Vidal’s autobiographical account of his exploits as one of the Lyonnais band’s ruthless leaders, the script (co-written with TV scribe Edgar Marie) jumps between the present day, where Vidal (Lanvin) rules his roost with Brando-like aplomb, and the past, where young “Momon” Vidal (Dimitri Storoge) makes the climb from impoverished gypsy to gun-slinging thief alongside his faithful sidekick, Serge (Olivier Chantreau). Yet as future events reveal, the older Serge (Tcheky Karyo, La Femme Nikita) soon becomes the source of much grief for Vidal, who’s forced to bust his buddy out of jail, only to learn he’s saddled with the type of debts that aren’t collected with a handshake.

Cutting systematically between the two storylines, and leading up to a finale that’s all too foreseeable, Lyonnais lacks some much-needed nuance – a quality that has never been Marchal’s forte, and is sorely missed here. While the flashback sequences provide the kind of sepia-toned nostalgia we’ve seen dozens of times before (e.g. drunken criminals feting their exploits in a disco), the modern-day scenes often feel heavy-handed, especially an extended family gathering that’s straight out of The Godfather. Like in many a gangster flick, Marchal also seems too enamored with his characters to show any critical distance, glamorizing their exploits for most of the film, and then trying to reverse course way too late in the game.

As for the heists themselves, many of them zip by in musical montages that lack verve, although the scene where Serge is busted out of jail provides moments of realistic violence reminiscent of Marchal’s previous features. Soundtrack is filled, Scorsese-style, with various rock hits of the epoch (Janis Joplin, Deep Purple, The Animals), while the overdone makeup – both then and now – gives the impression that a French gangster’s notoriety increases in direct proportion to his amount of facial hair.

Opens: In France (November 30)
Production companies: LGM Films, Gaumont, France 2 Cinema, Hatalom, Rhone-Alpes Cinema, Nexus Factory, Ufilm
Cast: Gerard Lanvin, Tcheky Karyo, Daniel Duval, Dimitri Storoge, Patrick Catalifo, Francois Levantal, Francis Renaud, Lionnel Astier
Director: Olivier Marchal
Screenwriters: Olivier Marchal, Edgar Marie, inspired by the book "Pour une poignee de cerises" by Edmond Vidal
Producers: Cyril Colbeau-Justin, Jean-Baptiste Dupont
Executive producer: David Giordano
Director of photography: Denis Rouden
Production designer: Ambre Sansonetti
Music: Erwann Kermovant
Costume designer: Agnes Falque
Editor: Raphaelle Urtin, Elodie Codaccioni
Sales Agent: Gaumont
No rating, 102 minutes