Owen Gleiberman
May 21, 2010 AT 10:58 PM EDT

The prospect of sitting through a very long movie can be intimidating (if it’s a dud, you aren’t just bored, you’re trapped). But from the moment I heard about Carlos, Olivier Assayas’ five-hour-and-33-minute dramatization of the life of Carlos the Jackal (née Ilich Ramirez Sanchez), the notorious, Venezualan-born radical-Marxist terrorist mercenary of the ’70s and ’80s, I was salivating to see it. It sounded like a real down-and-dirty, meat-and-potatoes movie, the sort of thing that can be cathartically satisfying after sitting through a week’s worth of festival-friendly art films. And, in fact, Carlos turns out to be a rivetingly journalistic blow-by-blow, murder-by-murder account of a scoundrel’s rise and fall. Staged in a convulsive, hand-held procedural style that suggests a fusion of Munich and Dog Day Afternoon and The Godfather, the film was made for French television, but it’s every inch a movie. That said, I can’t agree with the festival watchers — like indieWIRE‘s Todd McCarthy — who hailed Carlos as the second coming. Yes, the movie is enthralling compared to Che, the last Cannes epic about a legendary gun-toting Marxist-Leninist. But the truth is that Carlos, after about the midway point, slowly begins to run out of gas. The movie doesn’t get deeper, it just gets longer.

It seems obvious to me that Assayas, the talented and ferociously eclectic French maverick (Summer Hours, Boarding Gate, Irma Vep), was out to craft an exploration of the heart and mind of a terrorist that could speak to audiences in the al-Qaeda age. Carlos the Jackal predated the present wave of terrorism, but he was a spiritual precursor to it. He cast himself as a blood brother to the Palestinian movement, and his link-up of righteous “revolution” and homicide marked him as a bridge between the anti-establishment terrorists who sprung up like weeds in the ’60s and early ’70s (the Baader-Meinhoff Group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Weathermen) and the anti-Western, bring-it-all-down zeal of Osama bin Laden.

The Carlos we see shares aspects with every one of those figures, and with Che Guevara too; he’s like Che reborn as a machine-gun-toting hijacker. The 33-year-old Venezualan actor Edgar Ramirez, in a rawly charismatic, screen-grabbing performance, plays Carlos as a strutting mass of contradictions. Ramirez, an actor I wasn’t familiar with, bears a striking resemblance to the young Val Kilmer, with a touch of Mark Ruffalo’s puppy-eyed pensive reserve. He doesn’t look like a murderous fanatic, but that’s just what Carlos is.

He’s the kind of man who can wander, without a tremor of anxiety, into a bank, take everyone there hostage, and shoot several of them dead as though he were swatting mosquitoes. His connection to his cause is ruthless, total, and extreme. But is he acting out of ideals or out of allegiance to his own swagger?

Hiring himself out, in 1973, to the PFLP (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), Carlos views himself as a “soldier,” pure and simple — a stoic lone warrior in the struggle between imperialism and justice. That, in his view, is why he’s able to kill without mercy. But he’s also a romantic Marxist who throws off the guilty burden of his bourgeois past by transforming himself into a glamorous sociopath who can kill like a machine. He kills to fulfill an idea of potency about himself.

A baby-faced Latin American macho, Carlos gets off on his personal power, luring one woman after another into his orbit and, between slugs of Johnny Walker Red, treating them like harlots and whores. He becomes a celebrity, the media’s favorite Violent Rebel With a Cause, and he thinks it’s his divine right to sleep around. But the most dubious partners he climbs into bed with aren’t sexual, they’re political. To finance his operations, he allies himself with the sleaziest of Middle Eastern dictators — Muammar Qaddafi, the newly installed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein — and he creates a base of operations in any Communist-bloc police state that will have him. To Carlos, a place like East Germany is “socialist” and therefore upstanding according to his rigid “freedom fighter” logic. In other words, he’s a parasite who feeds off the corrupt power of pathological regimes; he can’t see that these regimes have no idealism at all, and that they’re using him. Yet the risks Carlos takes are real, and the way that Ramirez plays him, so is his half-mad, movie-cool fearlessness.

Part I of Carlos is a hypnotic succession of kidnappings, hair-trigger showdowns, implosive leftist strategy sessions, and bumblingly impromptu rocket-launcher attacks on taxiing Israeli airliners. It’s all followed, in the first half of Part II, by the movie’s single most dazzling sequence, an amazingly sustained, moment-by-moment re-enactment of Carlos’ most jaw-dropping act of terrorism-for-hire: On December 20, 1975, he busts into the conference of OPEC leaders in Vienna and takes 60 hostages, demanding that a communiqué about the Palestinian cause be read on Austrian TV and radio networks. He asks for, and gets, a DC-9 and flies the hostages to Algiers, then Libya, then back to Algiers again. Ah, the terrorism of the ’70s! How spectacularly clunky in its spotlight-grabbing impotence! As Carlos’ plan starts to fall apart, we see, in this episode, a revolutionary purist beginning to crumple: He’s now revealed as a thug who has passed through the looking glass of his own crackpot idealism. Of course, the “dream” was always just a murderous sham. Here, then, is the theme of Carlos: the hidden narcissism of the media-age terrorist — the egomaniac’s delusions that he conceals (behind a wall of fanaticism) even to himself.

Up until this point, the movie is masterly. But as Carlos gets cut loose, one by one, from his state sponsors, so that he’s now committing his terrorist actions in the name of “the Armed Wing of the Arab Revolution” (which is downright funny, because that’s just a kind of bogus corporate logo for himself), Carlos begins to grow repetitive and a bit monotonous. It looks at Carlos and sees an increasingly frazzled and self-centered series of acts (by the end, he’s even trying liposuction), but there’s no tragedy and no revelation, no intensification of the film’s earlier fascination. For the last two hours, we more or less watch him degenerate into a bloated bum, but Raging Bull this movie is not. What it lacks is Martin Scorsese’s psychological grandeur.

Carlos is being distributed by IFC, and I assume that the full-length version will be available for video-on-demand, and maybe (as Che was) as a “roadshow” event in select theaters. The movie certainly deserves to be seen. But as electrifying as some of it is, I wish that Assayas had made Carlos at once shorter and richer. I wish it were more than an episodic series of galvanizingly staged plots and executions and mishaps. To understand a terrorist, in his very monstrousness, is a valuable thing, but to devote this much time to a terrorist who is mostly an opportunist is wearying.

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