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Carlos Review

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by Casimir Harlow Oct 27, 2010

    Carlos the Jackal was born Ilyis Ramirez Sanchez in Venezuela, joining the Communist party at a very young age, and attending a guerrilla training school in Havana by the time he hit 16. He then volunteered for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine at the age of 21, and it was there that he gained the terrorist ‘nickname’ Carlos. He went on to found his own terrorist group and become one of the most wanted fugitives around the world.

    It was much later that he acquired the name Carlos the Jackal, prompting many to incorrectly assume that the superior hitman film classic, The Day of the Jackal, was based on him. In fact, Fredrick Forsythe’s original novel by the same name was written long before Carlos rose to fame, and it was actually due to a rumour that Carlos owned a copy of The Day of the Jackal that he acquired the title. Ironically, even that rumour would turn out to be false, but the name Carlos the Jackal stuck nonetheless.

    Of course, over the decades there have been many different literary and cinematic representations of the legendary assassin, mostly loose interpretations which largely glamorised the truth. Robert Ludlum’s recently adapted Bourne Trilogy featured Carlos in a very prominent role across all three books, culminating in a showdown between the two assassins in The Bourne Ultimatum. It would be a further irony that, although the character of Carlos was dropped from the movie adaptations, the brutal assassin who Bourne would face off against in the movie of The Bourne Ultimatum was played by Edgar Ramirez, a Venezuelan actor who would then go on to play the real-life assassin in arguably the most faithful adaptation of the notorious criminal’s life, 2010’s Carlos (released in the UK as Carlos the Jackal).

    Screened at Cannes in a 5 ½ hour version, the production was later split into three more digestible chunks for TV broadcast, and released theatrically in a bastardised cut that ran at less than half the full runtime, missing out a great deal of, arguably, integral material. The theatrical cut and the longer TV version were separately released straight-to-DVD in the UK, but the day-and-date Blu-ray counterpart would boast both cuts spread across 3 discs.

    Each episode of the series, as well as the Theatrical Cut, comes with the following forewarning:

    This film is the result of historical and journalistic research. Because of controversial grey areas in Carlos’ life, the film must be viewed as fiction, tracing two decades in the life of a notorious terrorist. His relations with other characters have been fictionalised as well. The three murders in Rue Touillier are the only events depicted in this film for which Ilyis Ramirez Sanchez has been tried and sentenced. The Drugstore Publicis bombing is still under investigation.

    Carlos kicks off in Paris, 1973, where a little-known freedom fighter named Ilyis Sanchez is working hard for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), attempting to set up his own splinter faction and do good terrorist work in the West. Inspired by the recently death of Che Guevara, and with the support of not only his own organisation, but also many like-minded communist terrorist units from Japan and Germany, he truly believes in his cause, and has the intelligence and determination to both plan and carry out successful attacks. His biggest problem, however, appears to be the people he trusts to work with him. Whether the man who supplies him with guns that jam, or the inept gangs that can’t hit a plane with a bazooka (literally), he seems surrounding by idiots who either don’t have the skills, or the courage of their conviction, to see operations successfully carried out.

    Thankfully, for Carlos, this is a time in history when bombings and terrorism in general is still a relatively new form of attack – their shocking effects surprising the authorities and the French government long before the ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists’ stance that many Western governments now adopt. Botching a mission for these guys was no big deal – hit the wrong plane and some other terrorist unit would take the credit and make it seem like a successful attack. Similarly being surrounded by armed police was no dire issue – all they did was take a few hostages and hold them until they were given a plane to fly to a safe haven with. These guys didn’t need to get everything right and complete a perfect mission; as long as they kept their wits about them and surrounded themselves with hostages, they knew that they could literally get away with murder. Of course, times change, and with the famously successful ‘raid on Entebbe’ (which later inspired the Delta Force movie) terrorists found their missions increasingly hard to pull off. In the midst of all this, and an internal power struggle amidst terrorist organisations, Carlos emerges as a man whose time may just be up.

    Carlos is an interesting examination of terrorism, from the perspective of one devoted freedom fighter who had both his fair share of massive successes and monumental failures during an illustrious career that saw him on the Most Wanted lists for several decades. It is a disturbing time – where terrorists could get away with almost anything, and where the only thing that can really stop them is the retraction of support from sympathetic countries. Carlos thrived during these years, from his shocking execution of a bunch of unarmed police officers (the only crime, as noted in the foreword, which he has actually been convicted of) to his stunning attack on the OPEC ministers, surely one of the longest periods of time anybody has ever held hostages for, taking them on a jet-setting voyage across the globe, to various countries which, successively, showed themselves to no longer want to be seen supporting this infamous terrorist’s cause. A resolute activist, determined leader and professional fighter, Carlos is continuously undermined by his associations, and sometimes even by his incidental actions, but – ironically – with a little bit more support, his terrorist operations could have truly set the world alight.

    The Theatrical Cut of Carlos focuses on the key events in his life, basically ‘cutting to the chase’ to offer up the highlights with very little embellishment (it is, after all, barely half the runtime of the full cut). It certainly contains all of the more tense sequences, but in stripping away so much of the background we get much less character development and consequently the siege scenes lack as much punch, and the expected downfall has much less gravitas. Even the OPEC epic hostage run (which essentially takes up the middle of the three TV episodes) is abbreviated, which does not do it justice – it was, after all, supposed to be a long and gruelling chapter, and skimming through it does not work as well. It's a shame because there really shouldn't be any kind of Theatrical Cut at all, at least not one available on home video release. Even at the cinema they could have gone down the same route as the similarly-themed Mesrine and Che biopics and just split the epic tales into two large chunks; rather than coming up with this horrendous single-film variation. But the trouble with offering a shorter, more easily digestible, alternative is that it is just too damn tempting for newcomers to just pick it up and run with it. Would you prefer to set aside five-and-a-half-hours for this story, or just two-and-a-half? The fact that the shorter version does not do the tale justice - that it is neither as enjoyable nor as engaging, and that it really is not worth your time at all - does not really come into play when faced with the prospect of having to deal with a 330 minute variation. They should have just released the production in one single form – a two-part film version – rather than even giving people the opportunity to easily spoil their enjoyment of this production.

    So, thankfully, if you avoid the movie and stick with the full series, you will find that it is actually pretty damn rewarding. It's up there in the same league as the aforementioned Che and Mesrine, although not quite as good as either of those, remaining distinctly watchable (and very similar in theme), but also – similarly – peaking too early, leaving the final third of the production not quite doing the rest of it justice.

    Episode 1 introduces Carlos, who has not yet fully adopted his nickname, and is still doing fairly small, low-key work: home assassinations and amateur bank bombings. It shows his professionalism and dedication to the cause, his affection for guns as much as women (who he appears to effortlessly charm, largely being ditzy poppy-power hippies who don’t seem to have a problem with him stashing a suitcase-full of grenades, guns and fake passports under their beds), and the trouble he has trying to get competent people to work with – or trying to get his more intelligent plans off the ground, as opposed to the botched improv’ attempts that the rest of his unit generally conducts. By the second instalment Carlos is a known name, the French authorities highly aware of the threat that he poses but still finding it difficult to corner him. The second episode largely follows the epic OPEC hostage conflict, and its unexpected denouement as Carlos himself finds that he does not have anywhere to turn, and does not have anyone left to trust. There’s dissent amidst his own group, and his backers have had enough of his quick-thinking, but nonetheless against-orders behaviour. By the third episode you can see that the authorities are closing in; the terrorist factions showing less and less interest in Carlos’ extreme work and – under the pull of the oil cartels and the various governments – refusing to give him safe haven. Despite the fact that Carlos is busy setting up his own terrorist group you can clearly see that the end is in sight.

    Taking it as a whole, the production definitely peaks early, really hitting its stride towards the end of the first episode, and becoming truly compelling for the entirety of the second. With Arafat making deals at the U.N. and the weight of OPEC pressuring the organisations that previously supported Carlos, his tour de force operation is tense and engaging – and works as a perfectly summary of the man’s career in general. The trouble is that it is definitely all downhill from there, and waiting over two hours just to finally reach the conclusion that everybody already knows (from the press and news reports) seems like an unduly lengthy task.

    There is also some socio-political commentary here, the narrative forming an interesting counterpoint to the modern-day situation regarding terrorism (and, in particular, the ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists’ thing, which – based on the evidence here – is an overwhelmingly sensible solution). This juxtaposition lends the project more weight, and aside from the grander scheme of things, it always makes for compelling viewing when you are offered the opportunity to get inside the mind of a famous psychopath (Mesrine, Bronson). In this respect, Carlos is no different – and the superior longer edit certainly affords more time to allow Edgar Ramirez to develop the character somewhat (physically changing quite considerably across the timespan). I’m not sure that there is quite as much insight as I would have liked, but at least the filmmakers go down the route of providing a seemingly unbiased approach to his actions.

    Rather than the glamour of Mesrine, Carlos is unabashedly realistic, with his best points really being that he is basically more professional than his idiot companions; and with any sympathy present only because his own supporting organisations are so whimsical (it’s particularly surprising, and resoundingly stupid, when the Libyans themselves retract their support). Correspondingly, you are assured that this guy is a real terrorist – not some grey-area anti-hero, but the kind of notorious character who could get a reference from Saddam Hussein (who, at one point, notes his admiration for Carlos’ working ethos). Negotiation is – at least for over half of the series – not a part of this man’s way of thinking: he’ll just blow more and more people up until somebody folds. And, whilst that makes for electrifyingly compulsive viewing, you are seldom left wanting or hoping that this guy somehow gets away with it all.

    From a production standpoint, they appear to have a reasonable budget for this epic affair, but have not used it as wisely as on some of its counterparts. Carlos never quite finds its own style, occasionally breaking into an engaging action set-piece that is backed by what soon becomes the theme for the series, but never really following through or cementing the stylisation. It’s superior to a made-for-TV production (the multiple languages used add an air of authenticity to the project) but it is still inferior to most made-for-Cinema efforts, sitting uncomfortably somewhere in between and making you wonder, for some bits, whether it could have just been aired on Channel Four whilst, for others, you wish you could see it on the Big Screen.

    There is also an argument that this 70s terrorist-themed sub-genre is getting a bit over-burdened by the plethora of recent projects. Not only do we have no end of modern terrorist- (and WMD-) inspired productions, but we also have an antidote to all this doom and gloom, with Chris Morris’ excellent satire, Four Lions, that takes a very critical look at the woeful short-sightedness of many on-the-ground revolutionaries. Watching a bunch of inept – but deadly serious – terrorists blast away with a bazooka in a crowded airport becomes something of a farce; and it’s only thanks to blind luck and the ineptitude of the authorities themselves (who, in their defence, were often quite taken back with the accelerated level of escalation that these activities took) that they largely manage to live to fight (i.e. mess-up) another day. Similarly do girls really get off on having their thighs rubbed with live grenades? Scenes like these only add to the (hopefully unintentional) hilarity, and detract a little from the substance.

    Still, complaints aside, Carlos is a nice addition to the ever-burgeoning terrorist/freedom fighter biopic sub-genre, not only comparable to the likes of Che and Mesrine, but also working along the same sort of timeline as both those movies (which, respectively, start before, and end just after Carlos) as well as the timeline of 2008’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, which looks at the German Red Army Faction’s exploits during the eventful, terrorist-themed 70s. As a companion-piece, Carlos works extremely well, although I would argue that it is inferior – as a whole – to all of the aforementioned films, both in narrative and in substance. A flawed epic.