Momon Vidal (Gérard Lanvin) is a career criminal who has made quite a comfortable living from his misdeeds, but he wants his family to have nothing to do with that seamier side of life, and hopes his grandchildren will not follow in his footsteps, indeed he warns them against it. But one day, when one of those grandchildren is being Christened in the local church with all his relatives and friends present, he notices someone is not: Lilou (Estelle Skornik), his best friend's daughter. When he asks where she is, he is told she is picking up her son from school, but what Momon does not know is she has been approached by Serge Suttel (Tchéky Karyo) in the street - who is he? Well, therein lies a story...
This French gangster drama was the brainchild of writer and director Olivier Marchal, that ex-policeman and crime movie expert who had been making a name for himself in that genre of thrillers, especially in Europe where is work was very well received. Drawing from real life, he adapted a real life gang boss's tale and refashioned it into a yarn more obviously influenced by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather trilogy, Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas or Michael Mann's Heat, the American favourites in the field such as that had become benchmarks in the way of relating this sort of thing. For some, A Gang Story was right up there with them and deserved to be mentioned in the same breath.
Others may be less impressed, however, not merely because this was derivative without really divining its own more distinctive approach (recognising that element was presumably why this had such ardent fans), but because it was wearyingly self-important and full of itself, particularly when it came to romanticising the central relationship. That was not between Momon and the woman in his life, but with Serge, his childhood friend ever since the latter stood up for Momon in the playground when he was bullied for his gypsy roots. Serge was the father of Lilou (Skornik best known to British viewers of a certain vintage for playing Nicole in her nineties car adverts), and Momon looked after her as if she were his own daughter, underlining the bond between the two men.
Yet while this was sentimental when it came to honour amongst thieves, it was driven to be hard edged as well, therefore in flashbacks we were offered Mann-esque action sequences as the antiheroes' gang set about their heists and retributions down the years. These were well enough staged, but seemed to come from another, less moody movie and tended to be jarring when set against the rest of the more intimate drama that made up the bulk of the plot. Lanvin, a comedian turned actor, played it as sombre as he possibly could, which did not make for the most riveting of protagonists, not that he needed to be throwing down zingers at every opportunity but the humourlessness was a grinding test of the patience.
Were we ever supposed to feel sorry for Momon and Serge? When Serge is captured by the police in that early sequence, he is sent to a prison his old pal sees to it that he does not stay in for long, staging a breakout that involves the jailbird slashing his wrists to get to the emergency room at the nearby hospital, then having the gangsters break him out, casually murdering a cop in the process. Marchal obviously felt strongly about this as he had the one who pulled the trigger almost immediately shot dead by his boss as punishment, but it was pretty rich for him to freely adopt this self-righteous tone when if anyone was making the life of crime look exciting and attractive it was the director. Fair enough, there was a realisation for Momon at the end that he had been betrayed for his entire adult life, not much fun, but we were invited to feel the tragedy of that situation for his feelings, not those of his victims. Marchal kept the pace swift, patently knew of which he spake, but there was something definitely off about the whole enterprise. Music by Erwann Kermorvant.