BERLIN – Just as no book should be judged by its cover, no film should be judged by its title — though that doesn’t stop us from occasionally doing so anyway. It’s fair to say that any expectations set up by the title “Two Men in Town” are met by French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb’s drab, western-infused thriller: it features at least two men, it’s set in something more or less resembling a town, and it’s sufficiently listless to make you believe no one could be bothered to think up something more flavorful. “Two Magnificent Men in Town.” “Two Men in [Insert Town Name Here].” I’m just spitballing.
To be fair, the film’s a remake of a 1973 Jean Gabin-Alain Delon starrer, “Deux hommes dans la ville,” so Bouchareb can’t be blamed for the title’s creation — only its appropriation. There is, in fact, a lot of appropriation going on here, as Bouchareb picks liberally from the genre playbooks of western and noir, as well as laconic indie Americana as demonstrated by John Sayles and the Brothers Coen (think “Fargo,” except don’t).
He doesn’t wear any of these guises particularly well. Bouchareb’s most successful films (“Days of Glory,” “London River”) benefit from a degree of open-hearted human interest and patient social observation — qualities that aren’t easily grafted onto a script with designs on hard-boiled genre austerity. What we get is some virtuous sloganeering tucked between the grim acts of violence: “Without trust, there can be no chance of reform,” intones Emily Smith, Brenda Blethyn’s hard-assed New Mexico parole officer — no, that is not a misprint — sounding more like a speaker at a Labour Party conference than a seen-it-all Mountain Stater, Marge Gunderson pep and wobbly accent notwithstanding.
New in town, her first ward is William Garnett (Forest Whitaker), a bespectacled, unassuming type at the end of an 18-year prison sentence for murder. He’s introduced in the film’s opening shot, fatally hurling a rock at the head of his battered victim as a mimosa sunset blazes in the background. It’s all too obvious we’re due a bookending image, though by the time Emily meets him, he seems pretty straight and narrow. A convert to Islam during his incarceration, he’s compliant and polite, though there are plainly anger issues roiling beneath the placid surface. Much as I’d like to attribute this sense to subtle nuances in Whitaker’s performance, the real tip-off is the scene where William’s prison imam instructs him to overcome his anger issues. Emily’s big on trust; the script a little less so.
Far less convinced than the parole officer of William’s reform is the town sheriff, Bill Agati (Harvey Keitel, doing a little with a little), who keeps him under close watch — perhaps understandably so given that, in a bold reversal of Bob Marley logic, William killed his deputy. Also on his tail is former criminal colleague Terence (Luis Guzman, whose sole directorial instruction was clearly to look Latin and leering), whose invitations from the dark side threaten the new life William has already rather improbably set up with kind-hearted bank manager Teresa (Dolores Heredia). What attractive, professional woman wouldn’t shack up with a convicted murderer a week after his release, especially one as dishy as Forest Whitaker?
As this dingy setup plays out exactly as you suspect it must, the film’s rampant absurdities would be acceptable if it were making a broader moral or allegorical point in the process — in the vein of classic westerns — but it’s hard to detect one beyond Emily’s increasingly questionable homespun wisdom. (“If she really cares about you, she’ll follow you anywhere — that’s how women are,” she tells William sagely in the film’s single most hilarious moment. Not even women understand women in Bouchareb’s universe, with Blethyn far less generously served than she was in “London River.”)
Bouchareb made the film as the second entry in a planned trilogy about America’s interaction with the Arab world: the first was last year’s barely seen, critically brutalized Sienna Miller-Golshifteh Farahani belly-dancing comedy “Just Like a Woman,” so Part Three has a lot to live down to. Still, William’s faith is neither an active enough plot point nor a pervasive enough theme in the proceedings for the film to fit this description: no one, in fact, seems to respond to his religion at all. That may be a conclusion in itself, but it doesn’t do much to color this dry, inert potboiler. No Bouchareb film is without its textural pleasures — any film shot by Yves Cape (“White Material”) is going to — but that title seems to represent his full personal investment in the proceedings, and in his chosen new milieu.