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Saturday, August 10, 2013


(NOTE: This review originally appeared online several years ago at

I never saw the widely-reviled CATWOMAN with Halle Berry, but its director, Pitoff, who also supervised the visual effects for ALIEN:RESURRECTION and THE MESSENGER:THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC, definitely knows how to get the most out of a good screenplay as he does with DARK PORTALS:THE CHRONICLES OF VIDOCQ (2001), which he co-wrote with Jean-Christophe Grangé. The first movie to be shot on HD digital video, it looks and feels like a cross between SPIDERMAN and FROM HELL, with furious action and dark, visually-stunning atmosphere to burn.

The setting is Paris in 1830, and Gérard Depardieu (1492:CONQUEST OF PARADISE, GREEN CARD) plays tough, burly French detective Vidocq, who has been asked by the chief of police to assist in solving the mystery of two deaths by lightning. Since both victims (an arms dealer and a chemist) were important to the French military, he suspects a conspiracy. But who would have the power to harness lightning for use as a murder weapon? Vidocq's investigation points to an elusive, hooded phantom known as "The Alchemist", who wears a featureless, reflective mask made of glass. The movie opens as Vidocq tracks The Alchemist down to the lower chambers of a glass factory and they have a fierce battle that results in Vidocq falling to his doom down a flaming pit. But not before The Alchemist grants his last request and removes his mask, revealing his identity.

Vidocq's partner, Nimier (Moussa Maaskri), receives a visit from a young journalist named Etienne (Guillaume Canet), who wants to track down the killer and avenge Vidocq's death as a fitting conclusion to the biography he's been writing about him. As he follows the trail of Vidocq's own investigation, we meet the beautiful dancer/prostitute Préah (Inés Sastre), who was paid anonymously to aid in the assassination of the two lightning victims by placing her distinctive metal hair combs in their hats. Rushing to save a third man similarly marked for death, Vidocq (in one of many flashbacks throughout the film) first encounters The Alchemist and they engage in a furious battle that is thrillingly staged.

This fight scene is topped later on, however, when Vidocq discovers The Alchemist's secret lair where he is doing very bad things to several young female virgins for his own nefarious purposes. The action direction and stunts are first-rate, making great use of some incredible sets, and the shots in which the actors are replaced by CGI doubles are used sparingly and are much less obvious than in movies like SPIDERMAN or BLADE II. (And speaking of CGI, it is used to very good advantage here with several exquisite views of nineteenth-century Paris and surrounding locations.)

Etienne delves deeper into the mystery, while two of the people he questions are later visited by the killer and slashed to death (there's a fair amount of gore in this movie). He is stalked by a shadowy figure as he ventures into the dark, lurid underbelly of Paris where the case becomes mired in a morass of bizarre sexual perversion, in which the original three lightning victims were involved up to their bushy little eyebrows. It's all rather complicated and I don't want to reveal too much about it, but it's fun to watch Vidocq and Etienne trying to sort it all out.

Like FROM HELL, this movie revels in its period detail, and the production design, costumes, and visual effects are even more impressive, creating an atmosphere that is totally convincing and a joy to behold. Pitoff's direction is stylish and inventive, as are the editing and cinematography. The performances are excellent, especially from Gérard Depardieu--I never really cared that much for him as an actor before, but this role is perfect for him and I wouldn't mind seeing him play it again.

All the supporting players are fine as well, Inés Sastre in particular--she's very likable as Préah, while her beauty adds to the film's visual appeal. Moussa Maaskri as Nimier isn't very visually appealing but his gruff, surly demeanor makes him the perfect partner for Vidocq. Guillaume Canet's young journalist Etienne is a good mix of callowness and bravado as he stumbles his way along Vidocq's footsteps in search of the killer.

And then there's The Alchemist. He's one of the best movie villains of recent years, a supernaturally evil phantom who fights with a combination of magic and ass-kicking skills, and it's great to see him pitting them against Vidocq's brawny, bulldog tenacity. And at the end, when his identity is finally revealed, it's a pretty good surprise. It may not make perfect sense at first (I had to go back and think about it in order to explain what seemed to be a couple of major plot holes as a result of this revelation), but it's still cool, and it leads to a final good vs. evil confrontation that brings the story to a satisfying wrap-up. DARK PORTALS:THE CHRONICLES OF VIDOCQ is a highly-entertaining flick that I'll be watching again.

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