An auteur as chameleonic (and cool) as they come, French director Olivier Assayas has cruised through multiple genres as foreplay for the big bang. Justly feted at Cannes, named for the globe-trotting Venezuelan "revolutionary"-turned-killer capitalist also known as "the Jackal," Carlos is Assayas' gangster movie. Or, serial, if one takes into account its five-and-a-half-hour running time, which likely strikes a few of its many fans as being much too brief. Assayas' immensely skillful and thoroughly immersive biopic adopts the classic rise, peak and fall structure of old-style gangster drama. And it bids to be the speediest 330 minutes in cinema history: Damned if this relentlessly globalist epic, which winds up wasted in Sudan, isn't like a drug in that it keeps one's pulse quickened for an unnerving duration.
Steeped in period detail but sonically youthful when the mood suits, Carlos kicks off in 1973 Beirut with a Feelies tune (!) that establishes the crazy rhythms of one Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Édgar Ramírez), 23-year-old soldier for Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Sporting chin-length sideburns and no shortage of 'tude, Sánchez incrementally earns the right to rename himself "Carlos" — first by shooting the vice president of the British Zionist Federation, later by raiding the French Embassy in the Hague on behalf of the Japanese Red Army. A near-comical failed attempt to launch rockets into an El Al jet at Orly brings our antihero unwanted heat, but his pistol proves easier to aim, and he gets away clean.
From the start, this stylishly outfitted architect of Euro and Middle East terror attacks fashions himself the Mick Jagger of Marxist revolutionaries. Assayas' early image of Carlos proudly standing naked in front of a window, admiring one of the key tools of his trade, says everything we need to know about the man's unbridled narcissism. What's amazing is that Assayas and Ramírez, having exposed the character so fully and so soon, manage to maintain our desire — to keep it up, so to speak — for the length of three movies.
More than an up-close inspection of a militantly suave sex-and-death machine, Carlos is a history of pre–9/11 terror in microcosm, equal parts psychological character study, geopolitical survey and intellectual action movie. Ultimately, Assayas' film seems critical not of terrorism per se so much as murderous power-mongering vaguely disguised as ideological zeal, a view that comes completely to light about halfway through.
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Part Two — in which the Jackal and his tiny squadron seize control of the 1975 OPEC summit meeting in Vienna (on orders from none other than Saddam Hussein) — forms the thumping heart of the movie. Assayas' intense, seemingly real-time mastery of the hostage-drama scenario builds to a virtual freeze-frame explication of that infamous photo of Carlos smiling triumphantly on the Algiers airport tarmac.
Exit the lean anti-imperialist; enter the opportunistic glutton. Carlos' increasingly conspicuous consumption may be a bit bluntly stated in the home stretch, but Assayas makes every kind of excess irresistibly entertaining. Indeed, the director means to catch us in the guilty pleasure of digging (or at least ogling) the hip killer, even when he's sporting (or screwing) the benefits of his heinous crimes. After the buzz of episodes one and two, withdrawal sets in. Displaced, nominally protected by yet another government, Carlos gains about 100 pounds and loses nearly everything else.
Kaleidoscopic, spanning two decades, a dozen countries and more than 100 speaking parts in a handful of languages, Carlos is nevertheless a movie that one can somehow remember vividly for months. Much of this power is due to the whiplash wide-screen cinematography, the hopped-up editing and, not least, Ramírez's aptly arrogant, fully transfixing, Method-style turn. Is there any "operation" that Assayas can't execute?
CARLOS | Directed by OLIVIER ASSAYAS | Written by ASSAYAS and DAN FRANCK | IFC Films | Egyptian Theatre