Pulsingly cinematic, relentlessly exciting, and tremendously absorbing, Carlos is a riveting account of a scoundrel’s rise and fall; a landmark of pop politics taken to extremes; and a shocking high-wire act of incredible precision. Brutal and romantic, it’s wizardly, bravura narrative filmmaking.

Carlos tells the story of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez who, for twenty years, was one of the most wanted terrorists on the planet. Between 1974, in London, where he tried to assassinate a British businessman, and 1994, when he was arrested in Khartoum, he lived several lives under various pseudonyms, weaving his way through the complex international happenings of the period.

A revolutionary turned mercenary, Sánchez’s primary drive was vanity, his main professional asset an absence of empathy. He was like a fanatical version of James Bond, a high-living, jet-setting playboy for hire. Fittingly, Carlos receives a star-making, César Award-winning performance from Édgar Ramírez (The Bourne Ultimatum), who inhabits the title role with the charismatic arrogance of Brando in his prime. Ramírez doesn’t pander, grounding the idealistic character in a sea of fascinating contradictions.

As such, Carlos becomes a staggering portrayal of a bloody-minded ideologue who convinced only himself; a fascinating, fictionalized account of the two-decade reign of terror masterminded and executed by a lone radical “soldier”; a portrait of a tormented egomaniac who required total obedience from his minions even as his relevance was draining away. If its subject’s actions are reprehensible, Carlos is exciting entertainment, delivering a steady stream of action and matching moments of globetrotting, Bourne-like cloak-and-dagger intrigue with the documentary rigour of a police investigation determined to leave nothing uncovered.

Previously responsible for the gloriously laid-back family drama Summer Hours, writer-director Olivier Assayas returns with a hulking, seething, sublime biopic of epic proportions. Globe-hopping from bloody episode to bloody episode with little pause for reflection, Carlos moves like a greyhound out of the gate, fleet, assured, and focused on the business at hand. Shot by shot, scene by scene, it’s a fluid, enthralling piece of work, due to the whiplash widescreen cinematography, hopped-up editing, and Ramírez’s aptly pompous, transfixing, Method-style turn.

Most of the dialogue is invented, but the sweep of events is genuine; Assayas admits that only a recombination of facts and fiction could do the story justice. He gives the film a journalistic quality, crawling into the skin of this global assassin and astonishing you with its brazenly violent and sexual audacity, creating a powerhouse piece of docudrama-thriller filmmaking and a cannily politicized work in the process. Almost universally admired, an unheard-of accomplishment even by Assayas’ high standards, it’s one of the most detailed, ambitious, and edifying suspense thrillers ever made.

Hypnotic yet sprawling, daunting yet completely engrossing, languorous yet surprisingly taut, Carlos is an imaginative and exhausting study of a man who embodied the shifting sands of history. Mobile, muscular, and informative, Carlos shines a light on the way countries use criminals to further their domestic and international goals. While it goes on for longer than a kidney transplant operation, this is killer stuff that whizzes by in a series of vivid flashes. I wasn’t bored for a microsecond.

Time may be fleeting, but it’s also mysteriously elastic: once you commit to an experience so intense and protracted, hours become much less than the sum total of their minutes, mirroring prior sweeping masterpieces such as Fanny and Alexander and Sátántangó. The length of each scene ties in to the unhurried, forensic calm of Carlos as a whole, injecting a boxset quality into its idea of epic. The apex of Assayas’ already impressive career, Carlos suggests that the genre-hopping director could utilize – maximize – his own talents even within the tight confines of a prison drama.

It’s a tricky feat to channel the glamour of a famous international terrorist without glamorizing him, but while makes old-fashioned beret-based terrorism look a thrill, Carlos never glorifies its protagonist’s callous, pathetic, and hilariously misfiring bids for a place in the annals of history. Like the convictions of some born into religious families, Carlos’ Marxism seems more a matter of habit than faith. Assayas offers a concise history in how extremist political violence played out across Europe during the final years of the Cold War.

Carlos steps into the abyss created by the loss of hope and fills it with blood and terror, revealing the poisonous side of global citizenship, playing to the faithful with anti-imperialist rhetoric and a pantomime of old-time revolutionary feeling. It’s explosive viewing, and a new GoodFellas.


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