In the shamelessly underrated 1964 George Axelrod-scripted comedy Paris When it Sizzles, the great French-Armenian actor Gregoire Aslan evaluates his assessment of life's underbelly as he sees it. “Zis ees what it means to be a cop,” he stoically comments in regard to the farcical and admittedly asinine events surrounding him. It's a concurrently brilliant and hilarious evaluation, and isn't that far off culturally when adapted to the largely successful French TV series BLOOD ON THE DOCKS (actually Two Cops on the Docks, but quickly eschewed as a far less exploitable Anglo title), of which VOLUME 1 makes its American DVD debut, courtesy of MHz Networks.
The series, based on the exciting British crime novels by Graham Hurley, made its bow in 2011, comprised of two feature-length TV movies. Their immediate approval by discriminating French viewers greenlit another pair of thrillers, subsequently broadcast in 2012. It is these four pics (all written by Bernard Marie) that grace this two-disc set.
Right off the bat, there's something special going on here. The crimes themselves, while intriguing, twisty and even diabolical, are nowhere near as fascinating as the characters solving them. While the first season, as all embryonic shows must, wastes far too much time developing the individual background storylines, the episodes still rule miles above their current U.S. counterparts. I can say unabashedly that season two is a lollapalooza. With the principals’ history firmly in play, the ballast-free narratives rocket through the gritty/opulent Le Havre dock locales (starkly photographed by Dominique de Wever and Bertand Mouly) with quicksilver precision (about the only complaint I have about this release is the 16 x 9 PAL to NTSC conversion, which occasionally displays a slight jittery effect, though not enough to deter from the show’s overall enjoyment).
Before continuing, I have to state that I love French crime shows, mostly because of their cynical, sarcastic outlook on 21st century urban survival. Like Antigone 34, BLOOD ON THE DOCKS makes it quite clear from frame one that there is no good or evil – merely a necessary co-existing hybrid. Each opposite needs the other to maintain a fragile sanity. The difference here is that all of the main populace of DOCKS is likeable; I think this is due to that fact that there really is no one stalwart example of moral fortitude. They're all tarnished, some irreparably. But they get along. No black, no white – just a misty foreboding of gray. It's only when the bad element morphs into a third REALLY nasty bastard child that the sides clash, i.e. the crooks helping the cops and vice versa. It's a strange world where sexism and substance abuse isn't tolerated, but the prostitution and drug trades flourish (as they bolster the economy). When violence rears its ugly head, the battling factions collude and cut it off...literally. Of course this is all a pivotal selling point, and one the producers wryly encourage; in short, there's more kinky sex and sanguinary shenanigans going in these shows than anywhere else before or since – with the possible exception of Rick James’ apartment.
But on with the show – or, more specifically, its characters. The two middle-aged leads are a beautiful oil and water balance of suave and slob, kinda like a Jim Thompson rendition of The Odd Couple. Richard Faraday (Jean-Marc Barr, who resembles the love child of Patrick Stewart and Mandy Patinkin) is an upstanding member of the local community, except when he struggles to walk a straight line between law and disorder. Widowed with a grown son, Faraday, while not outwardly dishonest, will look the other way if it serves his purpose (which he likewise identifies as justice).
In stark contrast, there is Faraday's sometime partner (and likewise widower) Paul Winckler, (Bruno Solo, think a disheveled version of Joe Mantegna...yeah, I know) who IS outwardly dishonest. A dirty (well, maybe smudgy) cop with a nevertheless good heart, Winckler (whose name suggests winking at the law) has longtime ties to the underworld, especially to the vicinity's head honcho, the urbane and superbly named Bazza Swaty (Emmanuel Salinger). A lot of excess baggage is spent in the first installment con-cerning Winckler's superiors trying to oust him from the force; fortunately, by the second entry, the writers (and sponsors) came to their senses. In spite of Winckler's shortcomings, he's the best cop in the squad. His vulgar mouthing off and absolutely unorthodox be-havior apparently endeared him to the show's millions of fans. Ditto the detective's outrageous and infallible hunches (which he unfailingly attributes to “my bastard's intuition.”) No matter; by the end of the fourth episode, the cops are playing so much ball with Swaty & Co., that the lines of decency have been sufficiently and eternally blurred beyond recognition. And, trust me, in the name of entertainment, that's a good thing.
Faraday's aforementioned son, Lulu (Jean-Marie Hallegot), is another notable character. A deaf mute, he has become a savant in all things visual. By that I mean, in 2014 terms, he's a video genius – having honed his considerable abilities as a budding documentarian. A cinematic godsend (where else, but in France), he records clip reels which he hopes to sell to the major Le Havre TV-news market. This he eventually does and becomes the cameraman associate of their leading reporter, Mary Deviln (Agathe Dronne), a gorgeous journalist, who also is Faraday's secret love (humorously revealed as the worst kept secret in Le Havre). Since all things coital tend to severe distinctly drawn barriers, Faraday is apt to leak info to the media...with turnaround results.
Meanwhile, back at the office – the office being a building spectacularly christened Hotel de Police (in and of itself a GREAT title for a crime show) – are DOCK's ancillary but relevant appendages. Key here is their resident computer hacker (Guillaume Viry). A victim of French snarkasm, he wears the moniker of “Bill Gates,” a title so contagious that nobody appears to actually know his real name. “Bill Gates,” when not blatantly infringing upon the civil rights privacy acts of “persons of interest,” spends his nights prepping for marathon runs.
Julie Fabian (Lisa Manili), the pretty comely newbie, initially comes off as the cliched fresh-out-of-cop-school innocent. Of course she's teamed with Winckler, whose habits and ap-proach to law she despises. And natch, she wants a transfer. Oh, yawn. Mercifully, by the second season, she had undergone a drastic change. Looking amazing in an Episode 3 Louise Brooks ‘do, Fabian removes some opaque behavioral layers that finally unmask a cool member for the force. Indeed, by Season 2, Fabian respects and even cherishes her tenure with Winckler. She has also become a formidable lady-flic, taking no crap from anyone, and reveals a troubled childhood when “pimped” by her parents into a Jon-Benet beauty pageant universe (which, like “Bill Gates”’s athletics, become imperative to DOCK's scenarios).
The last piece of the DOCK's road company is the no-nonsense head of the Hotel de Police, Lucie Dardenne (Mata Gabin). An intimidating African-Frenchwoman, Dardenne is take-no-prisoners leader, who occasionally joins the boy's club on a raid. She's the only one we know nothing about personally – and we glean that it was an intentional decision being that she herself would deem it as “none of your damn business!” Gabin reminds me of a more tres elegant version of S. Epatha Merkerson – a comparison which I also believe was intentional, as it connects the show to Law and Order, a hugely popular series in France, and, reportedly the late director Claude Chabrol's favorite TV show (which additionally might explain the great Isabelle Huppert's fantastic guest shot in the memorable 2010 SVU ep Shattered).
All four telefilms are slickly directed by Edwin Baily – with (as indicated) the latter two being better and more assuredly paced. This holds true to the soundtracks as well. The music in the first season is by Stephane Moucha. It is appropriately, but unremarkable in its “happening” approach. The second season's scores by Philippe Miller take the series' audio to a heightened dimension, melding techno-hep to what is nothing less than 1970s grindhouse. Again, trust me – this is a good thing.
In Angel's Passing, the mysterious death of beautiful young woman throws the squad into turmoil. The only witness is (okay, do the toilet humor thing now) Doodie (Samen Telesphore Teunou), a 12-year-old mixed-race street urchin, whose in-your-face smarts may be his downfall. It's up to Faraday and Winckler to rein the child in before all hell breaks loose. Meanwhile Dardenne is attempting to get Winckler relieved of duty. Winckler, about to take a long-overdue luxury vacation, would ra-ther mingle with the trash. His new partner Fa-bian is instantly repelled by him, and wants an immediate change. This isn't helped by the scuzzy cop making no bones about utilizing his friendship with mega-rich career criminal Bazza Swaty (this becomes a major issue when it's revealed that the dead girl's bestie was Swaty's daughter). The Faraday homefront is filled with concern for Lulu, who is readying his video audition for a TV-news gig; the detective is likewise failing to keep a low profile about his torrid affair with news anchor Devlin. Several brutal murders, outbreaks of racism, illicit drug deals and even the Taliban lead to the surprising and amazing explosive climax. Hint: it's something that could NEVER be done on American TV. Personal highlight: Interrogating a vicious, bigoted garage owner delights Winckler who jubilantly tells Faraday, “Now you'll know why I'll never quit. You never meet people like that doing a normal job.” Indeed the flic is so intent on solving these crimes that he cavalierly tosses his luxury holiday to a stunned coworker.
The harrowing Cut to Black (aka White Lines) concerns the community's growing drug trade, underlined by the emergence of a sadistic rogue teen gang whose specialties include hot shots, beatings and mob-style execution. To make matters worse, Swaty's wild-for-kicks daughter (Melanie Tran) is clubbing and shacking up with one of its key thugs – directly interfering with her father's piece of the action. Not surprisingly, Winckler can't help but be-come personally involved, and is enthusiasti-cally aided by the squad once “Bill Gates,” out for a midnight marathon practice jog, is me-thodically run down by the psychotic dealers. Faraday has another problem: Mary and Lulu’s expose on the rising drug atrocities dangerously document a day-in-the-life of an addict. Near-death, the subject beseeches Lulu to make his next score – a nail-biting sequence caught on camera by both Mary and Fabian (who has been keeping the gang under surveillance). Should Lulu survive, he may be looking at jail time. There's a murky charm about all of this – one that embosses the fact that on French TV there are rarely any happy endings.
One Under jolts viewers into double-take horror from its fade-in teaser. A naked man, chained to a morning commuter tram, is splattered all over the passenger-filled platform. A hurried investigation leads the squad into the revolting world of internet child porn, pre-teen beauty pageants and blackmailing sexual predators (eventually culminating in revenge killings). Not to be outdone, there's even a sidebar chronicling unscrupulous autopsy procedures (don't ever say that television isn't educational). Personal involvement is again added to the mix via Fabian's recollection of being touted as valuable little girl eye-candy; on the plus side, she learns to respect and even admire Winckler. Is there a connection to the growing undercover assignment involving Swaty's realty scam? This is certainly the most bizarre episode in the set. The finale’s denouement of the opening sequence reveals that all is never what it seems, and offers yet another sardonic though reasonable dose of French pessimism: that life is mostly stupid.
Winckler's recurring dizzy spells and intermittent blindness are uncharacteristically dealt with in Blood and Honey, my favorite entry in the collection. While investigating an illegal alien smuggling ring, Faraday and Winckler come across Pelly (Bernard Bloch) a vile building contractor who abuses his Eastern European workers (which seem to also include his stunning, young Bosnian wife). The discovery of headless bodies suggests that this may be the employer's severest (with accent on the severed) example of downsizing. That the con-tractor is tied to Swaty's fraudulent high-rise complex opens another can of human worms, especially that of entrepreneur Vannier (Michel Bompoil), a brutal pervert who conducts eyes-wide-shut orgies at his estate. It is here that Winckler comes into contact with the ravishing prostitute Maddox Duchrey (Carolina Jurczak). In their “meet cute” moment, he interrupts her in the nude performing “cowgirl” on Vannier; she immediately sees that there's something medically wrong and instructs him to see her at the hospital. This bowls over the supposed seen-it-all cop, who then learns that the woman leads another life as a brilliant surgeon. “I can't explain it,” she snaps at him, as their relationship starts to bloom. This further complicates her passion for being beaten up by Vannier (who then buys her off with expensive gifts).
The disappearance of Pelly's wife (Magdalena Malina), along with Winckler's thrashing by Vinnier's goons, uneasily merge the force with Swaty's cartel in an effort to duly enforce juris-prudence. Genocide, a growing housing scandal, elderly abuse and political secrets all become intertwined before the climax – wherein Winckler is about to go under the knife (remember, it's French – it's likely he won't make it).
Not great timing for the craggy detective, as he sits in a hospital room, pondering his future. What a time to fall in love – and with an S & M- craving escort/surgeon. One can almost read Winckler's thoughts...and they innumerably translate to: “Zis ees what it means to be a cop!”
BLOOD ON THE DOCKS. Color [16 x 9 anamorphic]; Stereo 2.0 audio [French w/English subtitles]; MHz Networks Corporation. CAT # SKU 16749. SRP: $39.95.