If you haven’t seen the key films by Jean-Pierre Melville, now is a great time to change that. Movies like Bob le Flambeur, Le Samourai, Army of Shadows and Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) have inspired many notable filmmakers and are, simply, magnificent cinematic experiences.

Remarkably, most of his major films have escaped being remade, though John Woo (a major Melville fan) has talked about remaking both Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge. The latter passed from his hands into those of Johnnie To, who had actors attached, then it went briefly to John Hillcoat. Now the Le Cercle Rouge remake is in entirely the wrong hands: those of Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra.

Deadline says that the Steve Knight script that was the backbone of the Johnnie To version is still in play at Working Title, and that the reins have been handed to Jaume Collet-Serra based on the projected performance of his Liam Neeson vehicle Unknown.

Thing is, while I enjoyed aspects of the director’s last three films (House of Wax, Orphan and Unknown) the thing he doesn’t do well is tone. Take Unknown, which starts off crafted very deliberately in the Hitchcock mode before going way over the top. The tonal change might have worked — Hitchcock is not exactly subtle, and there is much room for silliness in a film inspired by him — but Unknown draws unintentional laughter. It completely lost my investment in the last act.

Melville, meanwhile, is all about tone. Le Cercle Rouge is about a thief (Alain Delon), a murderer escaped from prison (GIan Maria Volonte) and a former cop (Yves Montand) team up for a jewelry heist which is played out, much like the celebrated heist in Rififi, over a 25-min dialogue-free stretch. In fact, the film has huge stretches with no dialogue — it is pure visual storytelling, and a great command of tone is required to turn the film from a run of the mill cops and robbers / heist picture into something special. I don’t think Jaume Collet-Serra is the guy to manage it.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s original is still streaming on Netflix (only until March 1, after which it will probably be on Hulu Plus) so check it out if you’re new to the film. It’s great stuff.

Oh, and with respect to remakes of Melville’s great films, Neil Jordan did remake Bob le Flambeur as The Good Thief, with Nick Nolte, and it is actually pretty solid. Worth checking out, certainly.

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