BAC Nord (released by Netflix as The Stronghold) tells the story of a case that’s notorious in the annals of French policing, when a unit of Marseille cops was hauled in and accused of drug trafficking and dealing. Their defence? They were part of an undercover and slightly off-limits operation ordered from higher up and now being officially denied.
Whether that was or wasn’t the case is what the film is about, though it makes it clear from the beginning that it clearly was. And in the characters of the three main characters – granite-tough middle-aged leader Grégory Cerva (Gilles Lellouche), new family man Yass (Karim Leklou) and charming playa Antoine (François Civil) – it takes great pains to present us with three musketeers who sail into the toughest of situations, all for one and one for all, and who usually come through victorious, though the odd rule might have been bent on the way.
Tough situations demand tough responses, Dirty Harry style, is the idea. Director/co-writer Cédric Jimenez starts his film with a series of brilliantly shot, tightly edited action sequences, full of energy, with edits that cut right into the meat, while the sound design – epecially at Brigade AntiCriminel Nord base – suggests chaos, and life on the streets and in the high rises on their beat is the same. We are with these guys. We see life from their point of view. We’re in their soup.
The actual detail of the contentious operation – scare up as much cannabis as you can by stealing it off smalltime dealers, then use that to buy information from a grass (Kenza Fortas) about where the big guys are – is actually secondary to the genre stylistics, with Jimenez moving from a verbose Tarantino homage early on (the guys talking shit), then into something closer to Miami Vice (the guys trying to play both sides) and on into the all-action, us-against-many dynamic of The Raid (the guys launch their attack on the drug kingpins) before finally an Internal Affairs/Line of Duty storyline develops (the guys are accused of being criminals themselves).
Midway between genre and something more, the film found itself caught up in the middle of a political debate. Suddenly BAC Nord was being repurposed from something it was about (cops undercover) into something it wasn’t (a state of the nation drama). Some commentators wondered why it took the police’s side and presented the residents of the projects as a baying, masked and undifferentiated mob (answer: the film isn’t about them). Others, the right-wing presidential hopeful Éric Zemmour, for instance, held up BAC Nord as a proof of the problems Muslims cause in France (to this: nice try. Karim Leklou, playing one of the good guys, has Muslim ancestry).
Put simply, the film cannot take this kind of scrutiny. Jimenez may have risen to the bait when the pile-on started, but really he shouldn’t have. This is a story about cops doing their best in a tough situation, and then getting hung out to dry.
Along the way we’re reminded how good Gilles Lellouche is at playing rock-hard guys with a short fuse, that Civil has movie-star chops as well as movie-star looks and that three’s often a crowd when it comes to this sort of thing. For all Leklou’s abilities, he’s sold short by the screenplay, while Adèle Exarchopoulos, as his new-mum wife, trails along as an afterthought, part of the screenplay’s indecision about how “genre” it wanted to be.
Watch it for Lellouche. Watch it as a cautionary tale about helping out a boss who wants something done off the books. Watch it as a fine piece of film-making at a craft level (lovely cinematography, sound design and soundtrack – all of them urgent). Don’t watch it as a film about France in the 21st century, though no one’s stopping you.
BAC Nord aka The Stronghold – watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022