"I don't speak Arabic, asshole."
This is the belittling phrase dirty Parisian Narco squad member Driss (Reda Kateb) hisses at a perp, following the high-rise raid sequence that opens French writer/director David Oelhoffen's Close Enemies. A real meat and potatoes, stare off into the middle distance bit of macho cop noir, Driss' diss indicates the rumbling motor of class analysis that powers Oelhoffen and co-writer Jeanne Aptekman's gritty, economical script. Here is a gruff, blue collar investigator who turned his back upon the impoverished Middle Eastern community which raised him, returning only to put the people he once called neighbors behind bars (while later complaining that the narcotics division is the only place where his "mug" can get him a leg up in his career). It's a rather literal cinematic illustration of the phrase “adding insult to injury”, but it works regardless of (or maybe due to) its lack of subtlety.
We've seen this movie before, so when Driss' antithesis – the ruggedly handsome, kilo-slinging champion of his ‘hood, Manuel (Matthias Schoenaerts) – is introduced in the very next scene, kicking a soccer ball in a prison parking lot while waiting for his project homeboy Imrane (Adel Bencherif) to be released, we instinctively know that the two will eventually collide. What's thrilling is how Close Enemies stages these familiar elements in a fashion that still keeps us guessing, as the cop and criminal’s eventual showdown is due to a clandestine undercover operation that Driss is running through Manuel's crew, resulting in a deadly shooting involving the snitch. Manuel's caught between serving as the dick’s new informant, and needing to clear his name with his own employers. Meanwhile, the competitors Driss is trying to take down with this sting could be waiting around the next corner, a bullet with the lovable thug's name on it already loaded into the chamber.
Reda Kateb is like a French Warren Oates, his hangdog mug and shifty, soulful eyes always scanning the room or his opponents for some sort of angle (when he isn't gazing at the horizon like a proper Michael Mann cop, that is). Kateb channels the same natural, hardened tenderness that Oates effortlessly owned, combining tiny gestures and understated line readings to sell the anti-drug agent's tumultuous relationship with morality. Meanwhile, Schoenaerts continues to combine tough guy sex appeal with a loving center; Manuel's relationship with his son and ex (Gwendolyn Gourvenec) reveals a quiet nobility that clashes with his poison-peddling profession. It's tough to think of a better recent pairing of performers and material on this sort of mid-level international pulp stage.
In order to bring this briskly entertaining, claustrophobically shot, and ethereally scored tale of duality to life, Oellhoffen employs deft technical collaborators in order to capture a hard-edged France we rarely glimpse outside of works like Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine. Cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines lenses much of the proceedings with a steady handheld camera, placing us right next to these embattled men as they make their moves. However thrilling, Close Enemies is far from breathless, as the director frequently slows the action down, allowing Julien Roig's ambient soundtrack to wash over scenes with discordant melancholy. So, for all the movie’s familiarity, the impeccable craft still manages to make the whole endeavor feel authentic and invigorating.
Technical accolades aside, the overall quality of Close Enemies hinges on the dramatic dynamics of its two leads, and without Kateb or Schoenaerts, Oellhoffen arguably wouldn't have a movie at all. If anything, his picture is further proof that "70% of filmmaking is casting correctly"; Driss and Manuel's dance expertly plays out until we reach the final, predictably tragic conclusion. This is an unfussy genre entry that seasoned fans will eat up, thanks to the no-nonsense attention to world and character building. Just like the re-worked proverb that acts as the picture's title, it's exciting to watch artists this transparently gifted flex their storytelling muscles in service of re-molding a recognizable template.