It seems appropriate that Edgar Ramírez, who plays Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known to the world as Carlos the Jackal, could easily be a regional finalist in a Val Kilmer lookalike competition, because Carlos often brings to mind the shape and feel of a rock biopic. We follow Sánchez from the early, punkier terrorism, as he kills cops with amazing sang-froid, through the increasingly hubristic world stage farrago of the OPEC kidnappings, to his decline into boozy, bloated obscurity. Anybody who caught Mesrine and The Baader-Meinhof Complex will find much of the setting, style and themes of Carlos familiar. We’re in a 70s radical chic world, a jet-setting, chain-smoking brown leather and knitwear milieu where radical politics are discussed in hotel bars, and Kalashnikovs are sexier than Fender Stratocasters. ‘Weapons are meant to be touched,’ says Sanchez, during a bit of alarming hand grenade-based foreplay with a London girlfriend, ‘weapons are an extension of my body’. Somehow I can’t picture Bin Laden saying that, mass murderers just aren’t fun anymore…
Olivier Assayas’s Carlos, or the cinema release version I saw, has been cut down to three hours from a 334-minute three-part French TV production, and feels like it. We skip through the edited highlights of a complicated life, starting from when Sánchez first allies himself with the Palestinian cause, and then move from country to country, through knots of casual acquaintances and key accomplices, with few recurring characters. It’s a wild ride, but you can’t help but feel that a lot of detail and nuance has been lost along the way. What we are left with is a series of scenes from an alien world, where Sánchez can get a good review from Saddam Hussein and attend a meeting where the KGB puts out a hit for tender. The OPEC kidnappings are a highlight, dealt with at length and moving from tense thriller dynamics to absurd farce as the powers-that-be in Algeria, Baghdad and Tripoli refuse to play ball with the terrorists, leaving the plan, and the plane they are in, stranded. This echoes the scenes later in the film when the fugitive Sánchez becomes persona non grata in state after state as world politics reshape the globe and he is moved on from Tripoli to Damascus, Iran to Sudan, yesterday’s man, a paunchy teacher reading TE Lawrence to a bored class. The OPEC scenes also introduce revolutionary pin up Nada/Gabrielle Kröcher Tiedmann (Julia Hummer), played here as a spitting cobra, one of the few supporting characters to really leave an impression, and given a fabulous exit, facing down machine guns to ‘Sonic Reducer’ by The Dead Boys.
Sánchez himself remains essentially unknowable throughout, we see nothing of his life before he joins the PFLP, and any family connections are absent. What we do have is a portrait of an inconsistent and contradictory man. He is ruthless enough to kill two Paris policemen and an informant without mercy, but cannot bring himself to execute the OPEC players who were the point of the mission. He is full of high revolutionary rhetoric but prone to alcoholism and womanising. The film draws a link between his terrorist missions and his libido: any time away from the frontline makes the Jackal fat and listless, put a gun in his hand and he regains his mojo. How much he is actually devoted to the Palestinian cause becomes a matter of conjecture, he cannot follow orders, and the demands of his ego and his vanity often seem to take precedence over military or political concerns. He rejects wholly the idea of a suicide mission with the typically self-serving, ‘I am a soldier, not a martyr’. It’s a great, charismatic performance from Edgar Ramírez, who really goes the distance, gaining and losing weight, delivering dialogue in a variety of tongues, depicting a Jackal who is both dark icon and arsehole at the same time.
He is a fascinating character, and it’s a fascinating world in which he operates. The film moves at a fair clip, in an unfussy hand-held style, and it contains enough weirdness and intrigue to remain diverting, but the TV origins and a stretched budget betray themselves here and there, and following the events of the man’s life means that it feels baggy and shapeless in places, choppy and rushed in others. Maybe that’s just the cut I saw, but if Carlos sounds like your bag, I’d try to catch the full-length monster.