- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2001

''The Crimson Rivers," a police thriller set in the French Alps, prides itself on exceptionally gruesome impressions from the opening images.
To be precise, the camera lingers over a corpse that has attracted insects and maggots while resting in the outdoors. Among other indications of torture, the bound victim has been amputated at the wrists.
Ultimately, the gruesome stuff has to compete with preposterous outbursts of belligerence, chases (foot and automotive) and avalanche-ducking by a set of sleuths who look seriously overmatched by investigative challenges. Vice cop Pierre Niemans, played by Jean Reno, arrives from Paris to witness the autopsy and perhaps contribute expert analysis of murders that overdose on kinkiness. His cigarette lighter doesn't work and he fears dogs. These vulnerabilities seem to anticipate that "The Crimson Rivers" has a broken-down plot and might be mistaken for a cinematic bow-wow. A famous movie line seems appropriate when the case is closed: "Pierre, you shouldn't have come."
The murder has occurred near a stark and suspicious mountain community called Guernon, renowned for a university that encourages scholastic and genetic inbreeding. According to one local cop, perhaps a malcontent, the school aspires to develop "future Bill Gateses." Uh-oh. The victim turns out to be a librarian with a long history at the school, an academic utopia where something evil is obviously afoot. Pierre follows leads to an ophthalmologist played by Jean-Pierre Cassel and a mountain guide played by Nadia Fares. She has a way of coming across mutilated bodies that troubles the observant Pierre, although he also takes a shine to her.
Meanwhile, Cop No. 2 enters in the person of Vincent Cassel as hothead Max Kerkerian, based a couple of hundred miles away from Guernon but assigned to a grave desecration incident that puts him on a collision course with Pierre.
Before that collision, Max tussles with a group of alleged skinheads whom he suspects of scrawling the swastikas found on a crypt. I'm not sure if one should be relieved or offended that this lead turns out to be utterly bogus. While up for grabs, it gives director Mathieu Kassovitz a pretext for orchestrating a karate fight between Max and the wrongly accused bigots.
Mr. Kassovitz, it transpires, is kind of like that. Flying off the handle without a justifiable story pretext suits his temperament and methodology. He's drawn to gratuitous and often futile exertion like the moth to the flame.
Max hotfoots it after a murder suspect, racing across icy back streets and then an icy campus before failing to overtake his prey on the icy infield of the track stadium. Max and Pierre are assaulted by a homicidal Jeep that tries to crush them against a bulldozer on a narrow bridge after several miles of high-speed rear-ending and shoving. No harm, no matter.
Apprehending the killer obliges the heroes to hop a ski lift to the top of the world. Indeed, they insist on going alone, leaving all the backup cooling heels down on the campus. Darned if the glory hounds don't have to get rescued themselves, after helping trigger an avalanche. They look ready for another case in a matter of minutes.
The once-bewitching Dominique Sanda turns up a repulsive bad-faith role as a crazed and blind nun who gives the visiting lawmen a bum steer.
The best case for "The Crimson Rivers" is that its Alpine locations offer a vicarious, picturesque way to beat the heat during the current scorcher. The necrophiliac tilt of the autopsy scenes and bloody sadism of the murder scenes make you wonder about the unfortunate influence of "The Silence of the Lambs."
We may have been spared scores of European crime thrillers that tried to surpass the autopsy and Hannibal Lecter's getaway caper in "Lambs." I'm not sure I'm ready for Mr. Kassovitz getting competitive with "Hannibal."

*
TITLE: "The Crimson Rivers"
RATING: R ("Violence, grisly images and language," according to the MPAA; frequent profanity and graphic violence, with a lingering emphasis on gruesome illustrative details and evidence of torture and mutilation; allusions to cemetery desecrations and an anti-Semitic conspiracy)
CREDITS: Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz; screenplay by Mr. Kassovitz and Jean-Christophe Grange, based on the novel by Mr. Grange; cinematography by Thierry Arbogast; production design by Thierry Flamand; costume design by Sandrine Follet; and music by Bruno Coulais. In French with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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