Dir: Olivier Megaton. France. 2002. 108 mins.

A blandly conventional English-language actioner featuring good and bad mercenaries battling it out across Europe to retrieve a 12-year-old runaway, The Red Siren seems more like a spin-off of a Luc Besson formula thriller than a screen adaptation of a cult French suspense novel, praised by critics for its stylish, densely textured thematics. Perhaps the only surprise here is that the film was developed by French indie Haut et Court, which has carved out an enviable place in the French industry as a packager of more high-profile arthouse fare such as the recent Time Out. Despite its English-track and Euro-cast, this siren call is unlikely to be heard in the Anglo-Saxon marketplace. In France itself it has registered a disappointing 121,312 admissions ($630,822) from 308 screens during its first week.

It took no fewer than four credited writers - including Paris-based US sci-fi writer Norman Spinrad and Alain Berliner, director of Haut et Court's breakout international success, Ma Vie En Rose - to boil down Maurice G Dantec's multi-layered, epic-length 1993 novel into submissive screenplay form. Reduced thus to its bare bones, the story is little more than an ersatz Bessonian pursuit thriller about a warm-hearted mercenary (Barr) who becomes the bloodletting guardian angel of a 12-year-girl (Negao) pursued by mad-dog gun-men in the employ of a wicked gangster mother (Barber).

Throughout the film, one glimpses remnants of themes that clearly were central to the book - most obviously, Barr's soul-searching as a member of an international mercenary organisation fighting for democracy in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s and his guilt over the accidental death of a young boy during a mission with his priestly mentor-superior (Dobtcheff). This provides the film's prologue, but Barr's moral quandary and his quest for redemption are given nothing more than lip service in the subsequent plot, which takes us from an unnamed Western European capital to coastal Portugal. Worse, Barr's relationship with his reluctant ward, who is bent on escaping the baneful grasp of her mother to find her supposedly dead father (Leysen), is skimpy in its characterization and poor in its significant dialogue.

Ill-served as Barr's character is, it at least has a plot purpose. One cannot say the same for Asia Asanto, barely justified dramatically as a woman detective who is the first to take an interest in Negao when the child shows up in her office to ask for protection from her mother, who she accuses of producing snuff movies. Asanto's role in the subsequent action is so peripheral as to be dispensable. Among the other players, only Barber shows some relish as the evil Euro-Cruella mother.

Director Megaton previously made shorts and vidclips and a first feature, Exit, released under Besson's aegis in 2000. His copy-cat debt to Besson is evident throughout Red Siren, never more so than in the film's chief action setpiece: a high-tech gunfight of orgiastic intensity between Barr and Barber's hitmen in a near empty hotel corridor, reminiscent of similar ballistic mayhem in Besson's Leon.

Prod cos: Haut et Court, Studio Canal, France 2 Cinema
Fr dist:
Haut et Court
Int dist:
Wild Bunch
Exec prods:
Carole Scotta, Simon Arnal-Szlovak
Norman Spinrad, Rob Conrath, Alain Berliner, Olivier Megaton, from the novel by Maurice G Dantec
Denis Rouden
Prod des:
Herve Leblanc
Yan Herve
Nicolas Bikialo
Jean-Marc Barr, Asia Argento, Frances Barber, Johan Leysen, Andrew Tiernan, Alexandra Negrao, Vernon Dobtcheff