Saturday 27 February 2021

The Wolf's Call

Is there anything harder to love than French cinema? Not in Exploding Helicopter’s experience.

If their filmmakers aren’t bamboozling the audience with avantgarde narrative structures, they’re boring them rigid with angst-laden characters discussing existentialism amid clouds of Gauloise smoke. The idea of simply entertaining the viewer seems positively offensive to their intellectual sensibilities.

This propensity for pretension would be bad enough were it confined solely to their prestige productions. But even when embarking on the most generic of genre films, our Gallic cousins still appear incapable of excluding their artier affectations. And if you want a case in point, look no further than la submarine drama, The Wolf’s Call (2019).

On its watery surface, this looks like just the kind of Hunt For Red October thriller you’ve seen countless times before. But peer beneath the waves, and you’ll soon detect the usual signs of showy self-regard, pulsing away like a pompous sonar. Mon dieu!

The plot

A French submarine crew find themselves at the centre of an international crisis when Russia launches a nuclear missile at their country. With their nation under attack, they’re ordered to sail in to position and fire a retaliatory nuke. Sacre bleu!

But wait! No sooner have the crew been given their irrevocable instructions, than the attack is found to be a heinous trick! The Ruskies didn’t fire the missile, after all. It’s actually some generic Jihadists (the villain du jour for lazy screenwriters) who are intent on destroying the West. Or at least France, so perhaps they’re not all bad.

The ‘grand fromages’ of the French military are now faced with a terrible dilemma. With their nuke-armed submarine already en route to blast an unwitting Russia into radioactive rubble, they have no choice but to send out a second submarine to seek and destroy their own men. Merde!

Submerged in self-importance

If you’ve watched any American action movies over the last 30 years, you’ll know how this story usually plays out.

An impossibly buff hero with perfect hair will hyperactively bounce through a series of obstacles before saving the day at the last minute (usually by disobeying orders and improvising a solution). Then he’ll grab an enviably hot girlfriend and motorcycle off into the blush of dawn. (Think Tom Cruise in Top Gun).

Au naturalment, our Froggy neighbours could never bring themselves to do anything so gauche. Instead, our protagonist is a spoddy sonar operator who spends most of the film, brow furrowed, listening to propeller cavitation on a pair of oversized headphones. Arnold Schwarzenegger, this is not.

With such strong nerd credentials, you’d think our big-eared hero would be unlikely to enjoy any romantic entanglements. Au contraire! You forget that France is a country where brainiacs and philosophers are more revered than rock stars. They’re practically pin-ups.

So, after pulling an unfeasibly hot bookshop owner (while attempting to buy a mathematics textbook, no less!), he gets to enjoy a passionate night of rumpy-pumpy. Oh-la-la!

But any viewers hoping to see the earnestly cerebral tone briefly enlivened with a bit of naked nookie will be left feeling decidedly limp.

Inspired by our man’s profession as a sonar operator, the sex scene focusses exclusively on the sounds of the couple’s conjugal canoodling. So, rather than shots of bouncing boobs or thrusting buttocks, you instead get abstract close-ups and the amplified sounds of racing heartbeats and heavy breathing.

In what is already a very French film, this seems like an impossibly French thing to do – the movie scene equivalent of a mime artist with a white-painted face pretending to be trapped inside a glass cube. Frankly, it’s a wonder we were spared the sonic stylings of our hero padding off to the khazi for a post-coital piss.

Mercifully though, once the action moves from the boudoir to the ocean bed, things do pick up and start resembling the Crimson Tide-style thriller you’d hoped to be watching all along.

Reda Kateb (A Prophet, Zero Dark Thirty) and Omar Sy (Lupin, Jurassic World) lend some welcome grit and gravitas as the two grim-faced, sweating sub commanders. And the final hour, in which the two submarines engage in an underwater game of cat and mouse as the clock relentlessly ticks towards doomsday, is genuinely tense.

Despite its loftier ambitions, The Wolf’s Call does turn out to be an intelligent and suspense-filled drama, which is well worth submerging yourself in for a couple of hours.

Exploding helicopter action

But enough aquatic theatrics: what about the aerial action? The exploding helicopter sequence occurs refreshingly early in the film, when a Syrian chopper is hunting a French submarine that’s trapped in shallow water.

Unable to submerge and escape, the sub captain instead opts to confront the threat head-on. Grabbing a conveniently handy rocket launcher, Captain Bullseye (literally) takes aim and blasts the bothersome whirlybird to smithereens. Problem solved.

Artistic merit

While the method of destruction is routine, the setting certainly isn’t. This is the first-ever submarine versus chopper encounter recorded at Exploding Helicopter. (Unless of course, you count The Spy Who Loved Me and the famous encounter between Roger Moore’s submersible car and Caroline Munro’s shortly-to- be-destroyed helicopter. But then, expert readers like yourself already knew that, right? Right?)

Interesting (and still unknown) fact

Readers who’ve made it this far may be wondering what lies behind the film’s cool sounding yet puzzling moniker: The Wolf’s Call. Apparently, it’s something to do with sonar – though precisely what, we can’t tell you. 

There’s a short, expository scene at one point where one character gamely attempts a garbled explanation, but it made precious little sense. Exploding Helicopter has watched the film twice now and is still none the wiser.

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