Rummaging around a junkyard, free-spirited artist Laetitia (Joanna Shimkus) befriends affable race car driver/engineer Roland (Lino Ventura) and his best friend: daredevil biplane pilot Manu (Alain Delon). When Manu performs an aerial stunt through the Arc du Triomphe he falls victim to a cruel prank that costs him his pilot's license. He and Roland exact revenge whereupon the prankster tries to placate them with a story about a plane that crashed in the ocean off the coast of the Congo, filled with riches. Intrigued, Manu and Roland invite Laetitia along for a jaunty adventure that later takes a regrettable turn.
Released in the United States as The Last Adventure, Les Aventuriers became a cult favourite among cineastes. Although the response from French critics was more muted the film was a big hit with audiences at the time, in part due to the star power and sparkling chemistry of Gallic superstars Alain Delon and Lino Ventura. Canadian model-turned-actress Joanna Shimkus also beguiles as the enigmatic Laetitia, exuding a sexy, waifish little-girl-lost persona akin to Jane Birkin. She re-teamed with skilled director Robert Enrico to some acclaim with the sensitive drama Tante Zita (1968) but is largely best known for her marriage to iconic African-American actor Sidney Poitier.
Interestingly Enrico adapted only the first half of the source novel for this film leaving the second part to its author: José Giovanni who directed Law of Survival starring Michel Constantin the same year. Giovanni remains an important but controversial cultural figure in France. He was a convicted criminal who escaped a death sentence in prison then reinvented himself as an acclaimed crime novelist, screenwriter then eventually filmmaker working several more times with Alain Delon (e.g. Two Men in Town (1974), The Gypsy (1975) and Lino Ventura (e.g. Le Ruffian (1983)). In 1993 Giovanni was outed as an alias for Joseph Damiani: a Nazi collaborator and murderer, but maintained he had already paid for his crimes and earned a new lease of life. Throughout his life Giovanni remained a staunch advocate for right-wing values, save notably the death penalty, but his work is characterized by an empathy with outlaws, the marginalized and downtrodden. There is a clear sense of that in the poetic, romanticized but melancholy story woven here. Les Aventuriers is equal parts an adventure story about treasure hunters and an intimate character piece about this makeshift family of lovable losers trying to sidestep the cruel twists of fate.
Critics slammed the film's plot as aimless and lethargic. While those unable or unwilling to fall under its leisurely spell may find the film a chore, it has that lovely, playful, picaresque quality so common amidst post-New Wave French cinema back then. As the story switches from light comedy, romance, Hitchcockian suspense and visceral action, the tonal shifts do not jar at all with the mood of doomed romance Enrico crafts so beautifully. Similarly the relationships sparkle and shift with similar ease. Like the Howard Hawks pictures so beloved by French filmmakers of the era, the film's true pleasures do not rest with the plot but in hanging out with cool people doing cool stuff. An essential part of its charm resides with the endearingly offbeat relationship shared by Laetizia with both Manu and Roland. It treads the line between romantic and familial. Both men treat her like a beloved kid sister. She in turn cares deeply for them and shows no inclination to shatter their unorthodox family unit by choosing one or the other, or indeed throwing sex into the mix. The cast embody their characters to perfection with Delon and Ventura's bonhomie almost akin to that between comic book heroes Tintin and Captain Haddock, underlining a sense of gleeful boys' own adventure before events take a darker, more tragic twist. Even Shimkus, who often drew diverse reactions from critics who either praised her sensitivity or derided her limitations, is excellent. Enrico does not stint on the action or spectacle (plane stunts, car stunts, underwater sequences, a sepia-toned flashback detailing the mass evacuation of French colonials in the Congo, and the exciting climactic shootout on Fortress Island) but the film is foremost about character. Our heroes are dreamers for whom money is but a means to an end, haunted by melancholy and unable to escape the capricious realities of life on a lower rung in a plot that likely influenced the fatalistic romanticism of John Woo.