Carlos (Roadshow Edition)

Carlos is the definitive portrait of Venezuelan revolutionary Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known to the world as Carlos the Jackal.  Originally conceived as a French miniseries, the saga is now available stateside in a 165 minute theatrical cut and in some cases a 3-part 330 minute (yes, that’s 5 and a half hours) “Roadshow Edition.”  I can’t speak for the edited version, but the “Roadshow Edition” was the fastest 5.5 hours I’ve ever spent in a theater chair and I’d hate to lose a second of it.

This is an epic in every sense of the word.  Shot in 9 countries on 3 continents, it features 11 languages and a massive international cast with almost every character being played by an actor of his or her own nationality.  And Edgar Ramirez (Che, The Bourne Ultimatum) shines in the center of this vast production as the title character.

While the dashing Ramirez (who looks like a Latin Mark Ruffalo to me) doesn’t look much like the real Carlos, his bravado and dedication to the role transform him into the character.  And I supposed it helps to have an attractive lead when he’s onscreen for about 90 percent of a 330 minute film.  Do the math if you must.

During his two-decade run beginning in the 1970s, Carlos basically invented terrorism as we know it today — at least until events like 9/11 made him obsolete.  Yet the film feels more like a classic gangster movie.  There’s even a subtle homage to The Godfather late in the film when a bloated and complacent Carlos chases his daughter through his backyard garden.

And I suppose that’s a good way to describe a terrorist — a gangster with a cause.  And his causes were many, but in his own words they all come down to liberating the oppressed against the imperialists.

As the film opens, Carlos is already 24 and has begun working himself up the ranks through a series of bombings with varying degrees of success.  He’s not quite polished, but the tenacity is there as he throws a bomb into the window of a bank and calmly keeps walking without a hitch.  He’s an intense character, and director Olivier Assayas does an admirable job of sustaining this intensity for the lengthy duration of the film.

After murdering a handful of cops while attempting to lay low in a friend’s tiny apartment, he hides out hut in the desert for several months.  When idle, Carlos gets fat (an impressive amount of weight gained by Ramirez in just a three week break during production) and unkept.  He’s woken up with the news that he has several weeks to get himself in shape for his biggest assignment yet, leading a group of 8 militants in the infamous raid of the 1975 OPEC summit.

This raid is the meat of the film’s second act and probably would have made a great standalone feature.  “My name is Carlos, you may have heard of me,” he announces before splitting the committee into separate groups based on if they were for, against or neutral to the terrorists’ stance.  Ramirez’s suave command is on full display here as he bonds with some hostages, while even taking time to sign an autograph for one.

Carlos is also a womanizer whose celebrity persona allows him to have his way with any woman he pleases, even after making a wife out of his most loyal partner’s girlfriend.  Power and control turns him on just as much as wild women.  He has one of his many mistresses literally lick his grenade as foreplay.

What keeps Carlos from approaching the greatness of Mesrine, the recent 4+ hour French gangster biopic, is its sometimes wavering focus.  The few scenes that don’t predominantly feature Ramirez suffer a lack of energy by contrast.  At times Carlos seems discontent with its strength as an intense character study and aspires to provide a broad memento of the times.

Carlos is obsessed with his celebrity and his supposed fate of going down in a hail of gunfire, thus adding to his legend.  “How do you expect it to end?” he asks his wife when she insists on him settling down.  After failing to execute the OPEC raid as instructed, Carlos starts his own terrorist organization and basically becomes a freelancer, lending his services to the highest bidding country.

But both the film and the person lose a lot of steam in the third act as Carlos struggles to stay relevant in a world that no longer has any use for him, like a rock star trying to stay current far past his prime.

Because that’s what Carlos was.  Except his bombs WERE his hits.

8/10

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