Ken Tucker
October 11, 2010 AT 12:39 PM EDT

You have a fine opportunity tonight: Carlos, the extraordinary film about the real-life international terrorist Carlos the Jackal, will begin airing this evening on the Sundance Channel. The movie is scheduled to open in some theaters on Friday. Don’t miss the chance to watch it at home: Think Scarface with radical politics.

The movie stars Edgar Ramirez (The Bourne Ultimatum; Che) as the man who took the name “Carlos” once he began working for leftist causes in the 1970s. Carlos traces the revolutionary’s beginnings as a swaggering romantic who took on violent assignments almost as proof of his masculinity and sex appeal. (The guy is a bomb-throwing chick-magnet.)

Director Olivier Assayas contructs the movie like a thriller while being careful to lay out all the issues behind the explosiveness. Carlos is shown to be an intense supporter of the Palestinian state, an independent operative willing to bring his cold-blooded talents to the cause. Soon known as “Carlos the Jackal,” he moves across Europe and the Middle East, moving weapons and bombs, plotting with various fugitive groups, encouraging pacifist leftists to go hardcore, and leaving rivers of blood in his wake.

The movie’s centerpiece is the 1974 raid on a meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in Vienna. Carlos and an assembled gang take foreign oil ministers hostage and demand a multi-million-dollar ransom. The scene is breathtakingly tense.

Like all good gangster films, Carlos makes you identify with its central figure, even though you know that, in life, you’d reject his methods. It’s easy to get absorbed in this man’s movements, because Ramirez gives an insinuating, irresistible performance. Sometimes Carlos’ exploits were hapless failures — guns jam, co-conspirators chicken out or botch their targets. But this only makes him seem more human, more fallible, and more ruthlessly determined.

Five and a half hours long, Carlos will be spread out over three nights on the Sundance Channel starting tonight. It’s really worth watching.

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