Olivier Assayas‘ Carlos (IFC films, 1o.15 — 10.20 On Demand) is “a fascinating, never-boring, you-are-there masterwork of a certain type,” I wrote during last May’s Cannes Film Festival. “Not exactly a levitational thing and more in the realm of a long triple than a home run, but exquisitely done in so many small and great and side-pocket ways that there’s really no choice but to take your hat off and say ‘sure, yes, of course.’
“This is a politically crackling, intrigue-filled saga of Carlos the Jackal (a.k.a, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez) with a no-bullshit, this-is-what-it-was, rock-solid authority in every line and scene and performance — no Hollywood crap of any kind, no comic relief and nothing artificially heightened. And it boasts a riveting, never-alienating but never-sympathetic lead performance by Edgar Ramirez, whom I know from relatively recent roles in Che and The Bourne Ultimatum (in which he played a bad guy who cut Matt Damon a break at the end).
“It’s essentially a portrait of a hard-charging, true-believing, very impressive type-A asshole who loved guns and blowjobs and Marlboros and being forceful and committed, and who enjoyed a kind of haunted celebrity for a few years during the 1970s when anti-capitalist revolution and terror were in fashion, at least in some overseas circles.
“Carlos doesn’t exactly throb with emotional poignancy or resonance, or deliver what you might call a ground-level universal theme. All it ‘says,’ really, is the same thing that any film about a terrorist or a gangster says, which is basically “live hard, burn brightly and enjoy the passion and thrills while you can, pal, because you’re looking at an early death or being sentenced to a very long jail term before you hit middle-age.’
“But then it’s hardly fair to expect this kind of film — an exacting, fact-based account of the life and times of a fierce and somewhat chilly sociopath who doesn’t laugh or smile much or pet kittens or make friends with homeless children — to swim in streams of emotionality or meditation, even. Like Che, Carlos is simply about ‘being there’ and believing everything you hear and see, although it delivers much more in the way of urgency and tension and thrills that Steven Soderbergh’s film did. It occasionally settles down for brief periods, but it never drops the ball.”