Charly Mattei (Jean Reno) and his young son have just spent the day with his mother, and after bidding her a fond farewell they set out on the drive home. Along the way, they listen to opera on the stereo, and the little boy grows restless and playful, so that when he notices a street performer as they draw into Marseilles he asks his father if he can go and watch. Charly agrees, and tells him to stay there while he parks the car in an underground facility. But as he does, the demons of his past return with a vengeance, for once he was a gangster, and his chickens are coming home to roost...
Although this was a Luc Besson production, 22 Bullets, or L'immortel as it was known orginally, was not simply one of those ageing star vehicles where our leading man grabbed all the guns to hand and mowed down a bunch of bad guys, as for a start Besson did not have a writing credit here. It was actually based upon a true life gang war of some decades before, and to that end boasted a sense of seriousness rather than a selection of shoot 'em up sequences where Reno got to prove his manly mettle and show how he still had what it took to be the action hero. Nevertheless, the film did still veer towards that direction.
There were some high octane action scenes here that saw Reno either firing off considerably more than twenty-two bullets, or giving way to his stuntman to, for example, ride a motorbike at top speed while a car full of hitmen chased after him, guns blazing. Yet there were just as many parts where the star would get into deep conversations about the gangster's code of honour, as if in the hope that audiences would take away from this a reflective and soulful feeling regarding all they had seen - certainly that's what the Charly character is heading towards. In the end, however, the highlights tended to be the flashy violence.
This was a curious hybrid of the sincere and the moves towards pulse-pounding entertainment, and you could sum that up in the opening ten minutes, which begin as a slick commercial for... something or other, then see Charly brought up short when after he parks the car a gang of heavies appear and open fire. They leave him for dead with those twenty-two bullets in his body, but he's still alive and as he recuperates in hospital he plans his next move, which can be frustrating to the viewer because we want to see Reno active, and for the first half hour he mainly lies in bed and speaks about ten sentences, if that. The police are keen to solve the crime, but Charly is in two minds about tracking down the perpetrators.
It's his gangster code, you see, which dictates that now he has renounced his old life he should be turning his back on anything that tries to drag him into it once more, and he even allows one of the gunmen to go after his underlings interrogate him. When the rivals kill one of those henchmen anyway, practically demanding that events escalate into a bloodbath, Charly decides he has no choice and must protect his beloved family, but naturally this option puts them in greater danger. Marina Foïs plays the detective attempting damage limitation who he strikes up an uneasy alliance with, and Kad Merad took a change of pace to play one of his fellow gangsters who he had made a pact with when they were boys. It's this pact that places Charly in peril, as while he is playing by noble rules no one else is, meaning the whole tit for tat is as pointless as it was unnecessary. There's no getting away from it: the vendetta never feels as if it was crucial to anyone's lives here, and while director Richard Berry may have been making that point, it harms the film in the long run. Music by Klaus Badelt.