Mathieu Kassovitz adapting Maurice G. Dantec. It was a dream combination: a sulfurous filmmaker for a sulfurous author. A dream for those of us who read “Babylon Babies”, and a dream for Kassovitz, who’s been working on the project for many years, A dream Kassovitz wanted to create out of Hollywood, after the difficult experience that was Gothika. A dream he envisioned for European cinema. But it was too big a dream.
In a not so distant future, Hugo Toorop, a mercenary more or less hiding in Eastern Europe, accepts a job offered by a Russian mobster, to smuggle a girl to New York City. It’s a high-risk task and a long journey (by road and by sea), while the intriguing girl interests a lot of people along the way. But what makes her so precious is a mystery Toorop fears to discover.
“Babylon Babies” is a 600-page, futuristic punk ride greatly influenced by the actuality of its time, the late nineties, a dense, intense, complex geopolitical adventure and a visionary portrait of the future at the same time. The kind of book you can’t let go easily. But adapting it to the big screen was probably an ill move. Kassovitz’s dream would have necessitated more freedom from his financiers, more money than his $60 million budget, more work on the script, more length, and a different actor. And that’s a lot, folks.
Back when I read “Babylon Babies” (which was some time before Kassovitz became attached to a film transposition) I remember imagining Toorop with the face of Vincent Cassel, a strong, mysterious, cynical warrior not quite at ease in a corrupt world that is falling to pieces. When Kassovitz announced his desire to put the book on the silver screen, everyone expected him to cast Cassel, his fetish actor, in the lead. It seemed natural, and for a long time the actor was rumoured to have been cast. But Kassovitz preferred to cast an international action star (probably advised by his foreign financiers, including 20th Century Fox), Vin Diesel, a choice symptomatic of Babylon A.D.’s defects.
The film should have been a dense, dark, complex, epic and trippy two-and-a-half hour adventure. What it was instead was just a quick sci-fi road movie lacking boldness, character development and ambition. This wasn’t Kassovitz’s dream, as it so clearly feels like the film has been truncated in the editing room to conform to a more standard “Vin Diesel action movie” (like xXx, for example). An actor who, as efficient as he can be as a big guy you don’t want to mess with, is an evident casting mistake, as his Toorop is more like a killing machine with a nice side, a reductive and unengaging approach of the character.
Kassovitz had already adapted a cult novel in the past, Crimson Rivers, who already showed his uneasiness with capturing the essence of the novel, but at least showed what a great director he was, after his remarkable work in the nineties with Cafe au Lait, La Haine and Assassin(s). Babylon A.D. is a failure, which indicates that for the past few years the French filmmaker seems a bit lost. Let’s hope his future (a return to French-speaking films with the political action film L’Ordre et la Morale) will see him get back on track.
2 / 5 stars