Erratic and confounding in its fractured storytelling and cutting off the drama at the very point it becomes most interesting, Rachid Bouchareb’s first foray into filmmaking in the U.S., “Two Men in Town,” is a mixed bag.
He couldn’t have hoped for a better cast and the New Mexico border setting does wonders. At whatever point the sun climbs in the sky, its light finds beguiling textures in the vast landscapes of sand, shrubs and dust.
But what the French-born director has in mind with this film is hard to decipher.
This is a remake of a 1973 French film by the same title starring none other than Alain Delon and Jean Gabin. Perhaps the holdovers from the old film don’t transfer well to the American Southwest plus some additions, especially a conversion to Islam by the main character, may mean more to the director than he is able to convey.
Forest Whitaker plays an ex-con released on parole after 18 years in stir. He inexplicably is returned to the same county where as a drug dealer he murdered a sheriff’s deputy. Perhaps not as inexplicably but certainly highly unlikely is the fact the same sheriff holds the job two decades later.
Harvey Keitel, playing the sheriff, is understandably angered to see this man once again in “his” county and means to do everything in his power to send him back to prison. Thwarting his efforts though is a tough yet maternal parole officer, Brenda Blethyn, who takes the parolee at face value: a reformed man who has earned a degree and converted to Islam while in prison.
The man gets a pretty Mexican-born girlfriend (Delores Heredia) almost as quickly as a bank account but can’t seem to avoid his old partner in crime (Luis Guzman), who is determined to get him back into trouble.
Bouchareb, whose previous films (“Days of Glory,” “London River”) deal with ethnic intolerance, might mean his scenario (written with two other non-Americans, Olivier Lorelle and Yasmina Khadra) to be an indictment of the American justice system and its prejudices. But uneven storytelling and lack of backstories for the characters leave a viewer adrift.
Somewhat incredibly the parole officer has arrived in the county the same day as the parolee, the black ex-con’s adapted mother is white (Ellen Burstyn) and the old crony’s menacing attitude toward his buddy and new girlfriend at odds with his supposed debt to the man.
Other things don’t add up either. Such as how Guzman’s lethal coyote operation can operate in plain sight, right under the sheriff’s gaze, while his deputies spend most of their time pulling over Whitaker for speeding violations. Selective law-and-order indeed.
The film is dragged out to nearly two hours and features one highly unnecessary subplot. Predictability also dogs every storyline. The wonder is that Bouchareb even bothered remaking what apparently is an outdated movie and didn’t just make up a new if similar story with characters that feel fresh and modern.
To give him his due, Bouchareb intends for his characters to be complicated. The sheriff speaks Spanish and is genuinely sympathetic to the plight of the illegal immigrants. Meanwhile the ex-con struggles with a violent temper that neither God, Christian nor Moslem, has managed to tame. He’s no Boy Scout.
The parole officer has her past too, as is apparent during a phone conversation. But a viewer, hearing only her side, can’t make out its import. Her listening to French love songs late at night though is about as likely as the sheriff listening to Qawwalli devotional music.
Other characters are bland, functional or just get in the way.
Nevertheless, pressures do build on the ex-con trying to go straight, leading to an (again predictable) outburst that abruptly ends the film before anything happens that one can recognize as a climax.
Given the outstanding production values and cast, “Two Men” feels very much like a lost opportunity.
Opens March 6, 2015 (Cohen Media Group)
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 by: Jose Giovanni, Daniel Boulanger
Producers: Jean Brehat, Jerome Seydoux
Director of photography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Yan Arlaud
Music: Eric Neveux
Costume designer: Graciela Mazon
Editor: Yannick Kergoat
R rating, 116 minutes