Two Men in Town: Berlin Review

Gregory Smith
Director Rachid Bouchareb's sterling cast struggles against predictable, old-fashioned storytelling.

Forest Whitaker and Harvey Keitel take on the Alain Delon and Jean Gabin roles in the remake of a 1973 French drama transposed to the New Mexico desert.

What seems meant as a scorching indictment of American injustice and prejudice, or perhaps the searing character study of a cornered man, just ends up looking wishy-washy and old-fashioned in Rachid Bouchareb's tepid remake of the 1973 French drama Two Against the Law, starring the late Jean Gabin and Alain Delon. That dream cast is respectably subbed by Forest Whitaker as an ex-con trying to go straight and Harvey Keitel as a vindictive sheriff hell-bent on sending him back to prison, plus Brenda Blethyn as a motherly parole officer who believes in tough love. But a game cast isn't enough to make this choppy drama work in a convincing fashion. Its bow in Berlin competition will probably herald further fest play and limited release.

Almost all the work of Paris-based Bouchareb has also focused on ethnic tolerance stories like the English-language London River in which a British mother and African father join forces to search for their missing children, and Days of Glory, his pioneering account of the North African troops who gave their lives fighting for France in World War II. Here racial issues are put on the back burner, and it comes as a bit of a surprise that no one in the film remarks on the fact that the hero is a black American Muslim, his girlfriend and best amigo are Mexican and his adoptive mother is white.

PHOTOS: Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker in the White House: Making of 'The Butler'

Bouchareb and his Euro screenwriters bring a fresh take to the story just by relocating it to a scraggy New Mexico border town where William Garnett (Whitaker) is being released on parole after serving 18 years for murder. Wearing a narrow tie, brown suit and old-fashioned specs, he looks more like Malcolm X than a drug smuggler from the American Southwest. He has converted to Islam in prison and before leaving is encouraged by an imam well-wisher to brave the dark days that lie ahead and seek the light. The religious thread is convincing as an anchor for William's violent personality, and his dogged attempt to find a safe haven in Arabic prayers, which Whitaker recites with great feeling, earns sympathy. Were it only enough.

Outside prison, the obstacles he faces in making a new life for himself are as formidable as they are predictable. He has to find a place to stay and a job open to convicted felons, establish a bank account, find a girlfriend (the pretty and agreeable Dolores Heredia), avoid the old crony (Luis Guzman) who got him into trouble, and eat humble pie when the sheriff publicly harasses and humiliates him. Unfortunately the step-by-step storytelling has echoes of its outdated source material, and the dialog comes off as stiffly formal, like a French play being read in translation.

PHOTOS: 25 of the Most Anticipated Foreign Films of 2014

While the drama stumbles and lopes along, some strongly drawn and moderately interesting characters are built around the name actors in the cast. The redneck Sheriff Bill Agati (Keitel) is a puzzling study in contrasts. On the one hand, he's tipped early on as a stalwart law enforcer who sternly orders some would-be vigilantes with rifles to decamp from the border, where they appear to be hunting illegal immigrants. He's even teary-eyed over a border tragedy his men stumble across. But on the other hand, he's the implacable nemesis of poor William, thwarting his every attempt to go straight. His fury is motivated by the fact that William's victim 20 years ago was his deputy, but as often as Keitel repeats this in an angry voice, it doesn't add up.

The first to roll her eyes and make a tart comment is parole officer Emily Smith, amusingly portrayed by an eccentric Blethyn, the mother in London River. Flashing the symbols of her authority, a badge and embossed uniform, she bears down on William, making him follow parole rules to the letter but doesn't shy away from open confrontation with the perfidious sheriff on his behalf. Blethyn adds a necessary off-beat note, though having her drink beer and listen to romantic French love songs alone at night is a bit of a stretch.

In a small but very poignant cameo, Ellen Burstyn appears as William's aged mother, tragically unable to cope with his prison term.

A strong point throughout is Yves Cape's arresting cinematography, which amasses the dusty grays and browns of the desert and a low-hanging sky where the sun always seems to be rising or setting. Eric Neveux's score is lovely but a bit too "sophisticated city" for its setting. The editing has a jumpy, non sequitur feeling, perhaps an offshoot of keeping the running time under two hours.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competing)
Production companies: Tessalit Productions, Pathe in association with AARC, Cohen Media Group, Scope Pictures
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Harvey Keitel, Brenda Blethyn, Luis Guzman, Dolores Heredia, Ellen Burstyn, Tim Guinee
Director: Rachid Bouchareb
Screenwriters: Rachid Bouchareb, Olivier Lorelle, Yasmina Khadra based on the screenplay
Two Against the Law by Jose Giovanni, Daniel Boulanger
Producers: Jean Brehat, Jerome Seydoux
Co-producers: Mustapha Orif, Charles S. Cohen, Genevieve Lemal, Abdelkim Bouchareb
Director of photography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Yan Arlaud
Costume designer: Graciela Mazon
Editor: Yannick Kergoat
Music: Eric Neveux
Sales Agent: Pathe International
No rating, 116 minutes