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There’s a Marvel character called Ares, and a DC one, strangely enough. A Greek god also goes by the same name, as does the hero of Ares (Arès, originally), a dystopian French actioner mainly remarkable for how unremarkable it is.

Reda Arèsilla (Ola Rapace), to give him his full name, lives in Paris in 2035, in a country that’s being propped up by payments from the Chinese. Millions are unemployed, neoliberalism has been taken to its conclusion and the “fuck you” dynamics of a devil-take-the-hindmost logic are triumphant. Ares, as he’s known, is one of the lucky ones. He fights for a living, in a culture that prizes its fighters. The bouts are TV ratings monsters. As are the brawlers. Doping is legit and these massive meat mountains regularly inject all manner of chemical cocktails to make themselves even bigger and more dangerous than their rivals. It’s good advertising for the pharma companies who sponsor the fighters, each hoping their man (they are all men) will beat the rest, leading to lucrative contracts… quite who from is a mystery, since everyone is unemployed. These sort of details are unimportant.

What is important is how wholesale has been the lifting of the worldscape from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in the service of this knockoff directed by Jean-Patrick Benes in his first solo outing. And to his credit, Benes does squeeze a lot of bang for his eurobuck. There’s no real budget to speak of and yet enough has been conjured on screen to achieve the desired suggestion. This is a dark, post-industrial world where neon lights flicker in the gloom and gigantic hoardings flash advertisements into the night while an almost medieval populace scuttle about below scratching an existence.

More plot? Ares is a fighter who doesn’t want to do it, but his sister’s just been arrested and he needs money to get her out of prison, or else he’s stuck with her daughters. His neighbour is a gay drag artist called Myosotis with whom he has an uneasy relationship – Myosotis calls him a “fascist”; Ares responds with a “poof”. An underdeveloped and grudging respect for each other’s way of life will (almost) develop. Similarly, Ares will almost develop warm human feelings for his nieces. Under that cold exterior something might be beating.

Ares with neices Anouk and Mae
Ares, with nieces Anouk and Mae

The CEO of the Big Pharma hoping to get Ares jacked up on their supertoxic magic formula – they have to use him because he’s one of the few with blood that can take it – is played by Louis-do de Lencquesaing, a name from an antiquarian’s happy place but a face that’s ideal for playing duplicitous bastards. If you’ve seen the French TV series Spiral (and you really should), you’ll know what I mean.

That’s all you need to know. Ares fights, he wins. He fights again, he loses. Leaving it all to play for in the finale, when he has to win again, right? Boy wins girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back? Except Benes muffs this big final fight by making it too much of a non-event. Has Benes never seen Rocky? It’s all about the big finish, Adrian.

Ares fights people with names like Panzer and Viper and La Masse (which I translate as The Incredible Bulk, because it makes me smile), and one of the standouts of the film is the physique of Rapace, which is all sculpted muscle, sinew and gristle, as if he were a refugee from a fighting game. He’s well cast. In the TV series The Last Kingdom he played someone called Bloodhair. Yup.

Being Blade Runner manqué, it’s all shot very dark. In fact the grunge aesthetic is so strong in this one that even when the sun is out and visibly shining in the sky, it’s dark on the ground.

I rather liked its unashamed rip-off aspect and the fact that, having factored this brazenness into his equation, Benes the writer and director has decided that the only way to make this thing fly is go all-in and move at speed. He does. There are no weird plot curlicues hanging off this story. It goes like a rat up a pipe.

Once upon a time this would have been produced by Luc Besson, the Frenchman who decided that what France needed wasn’t more art films featuring people staring at each other but more genre movies featuring people hitting each other, so that it could take on Hollywood at its own game. In the process he hoped to build a domestic movie industry capable of cranking out technically accomplished product at speed. Genre and scale, they’re almost synonyms in movie terms. Here one of the producers is Louis Leterrier, who used to be one of Besson’s boys. It all makes sense.

If Ola Rapace isn’t familiar to you, he’s a name to watch. If the name is ringing a distant bell, that’s because you’re probably thinking of Noomi Rapace, who used to be his wife. Interestingly, it’s not the surname either of them was born with (Ola’s was Norell). When they got married they chose a new surname to celebrate their union. That’s pretty cool. Nothing to do with Ares the movie, but hey.

Ares – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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