In 22 Bullets, or L’Immortel as it is also known, Jean Reno stars as Charly Mattei, a fictionalised rendition of a real life French mafia boss who survived a brutal assassination attempt against all odds and proceeded to exact revenge on his aggressors.
Mattei is shot twenty-two times after a brief opening sequence, and from then on the film is a taut, fast-paced thriller that shifts between time-zones, characters and set pieces in a frenzy. Establishing its back story through a few brief flashbacks, Richard Berry’s film doesn’t spend too much time catching its breath, and the audience is expected to pay attention as characters are introduced quickly and with little fanfare.
The film’s central theme is similar to Michael Mann’s tried and tested ‘cop vs. bad guy’ routine, although here the question is not so much about a police officer and a gangster, but rather two gangsters, one of whom has decided to ‘retire’ from his old life (Mattei), and the other who most certainly hasn’t. Can retiring from a life of crime make you a better person even when, as Charly philosophises, ‘spilled blood never dries,’?
Reno is commanding in his unwilling gangster role, conveying a sense of honour and remorse even whilst his finger is on the trigger, and the supporting cast carry his weight well, although most of the gangsters are simply there to be killed, and don’t have much to them, though one does get an amusing Tommy DeVito reference mid way through the film. Marina Fois, as the detective on Mattei’s trail, (who has reasons of her own to get involved), does well with a role that, thanks to her efforts, feels more important than it actually is.
Whilst the film deals with big issues on one level, it also walks a frustratingly familiar path of revenge that ends up detracting from the talent on screen. The structure of revenge after revenge begins to wear a little thin as the killing escalates, and whilst the film wants to talk about how terrible it is that this man has been dragged back into the world of crime, it also wants to make the most of his vengeance by throwing it up on screen.
In the end 22 Bullets fails to live up to its potential by descending into a series of ‘hits’ that, whilst they carry a perverse level of justice that is satisfying on one level, end up diluting the film’s sense of character and pathos. It could have been something much more, but 22 Bullets is unfortunately not much more than a fairly well made revenge thriller.