Which Way is Winch, by Kyle Anderson
I don’t think I’ve seen a more overtly international film than Jerome Salle’s The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch. It features a cast made up of actors from all over Europe, English, French, Serbian, and Portuguese are all spoken casually throughout, and the action switches between Hong Kong, Bosnia, and Sicily quite frequently. Beautiful locations, pretty girls, fast action, faster cars, and a mystery involving multi-billion dollar corporate takeovers; everything a good movie needs, right? Not quite. There’s also the pesky thing about having characters we care about and a comprehensible plot. You know, the little things. The film is based on a Belgian comic book series, which explains why most of the characters are presented as though we’re supposed to already know who they are and fully comprehend the world they inhabit. And presumably, Belgian audiences did, seeing as the movie was actually made and released in 2008 and is only now coming to our shores.
The film begins with billionaire businessman Nerio Winch (Miki Manojlovic) being murdered while on his houseboat in the middle of Hong Kong harbor. This sends the board members of his company, the never-explained “W Group” into turmoil as its second-in-command and now-leader Ann Ferguson (Kristin Scott Thomas) tries to find Nerio’s adopted son and sole heir to 65% stake in the company, Largo Winch (played as an adult by Tomer Sisley). In order to keep his heir a secret, Nerio had Largo grow up in the billionaire’s native Yugoslavia with trusted friends and would, throughout Largo’s upbringing, show up and teach his son various things about the business and the fortune that he would someday inherit. Largo, being the precocious thing that he is, has never wanted to be part of his father’s empire and spends his adult life as an adventurer, a profession exclusive to rich people in movies. Somewhere along the way, Largo must have learned how to fight, probably from the same place Bruce Wayne learned it: at the Rich Kids with Father Issues Survival Camp.
Upon learning that his estranged father has died, Largo arrives in Hong Kong to assume his mantle as Winch-master General and discover who had him killed. The W Group is more than a little wary of this young rogue who came out of nowhere, but before they can really worry too much about it they have to deal with the threat of a hostile takeover by former gunrunner turned corporate magnate, Korsky (Karel Roden). This sends Largo on a globetrotting, punching, kicking, speed-boating quest to unravel the mystery, bring his father’s killer to justice, and save the company he was bred to run.
On the surface, this would seem like the kind of movie I would eat up with a big wooden spoon. As a huge James Bond and Jason Bourne fanatic, I’m all about movies where some guy kicks ass and flies around the world to do so, and yet this movie did nothing for me. I could not have given less of a crap about the character of Largo Winch, which is a pretty major problem. He wasn’t charming or dashing, the way Bond is, or cold and calculating, the way Bourne is; he just came off as smug and smarmy. Tomer Sisley is apparently a comedian in France, but he looks like a J. Crew model and wasn’t funny in the least. I’ll give it to him that he did the fight scenes very well and he spoke three languages fluently, which is really impressive. But I never got the sense that Largo was at odds with himself. He wasn’t very fond of his father or the lifestyle he was meant to assume, but at no point did we see him struggling with the decision to pick up his father’s mantle or his desire to be elsewhere. He seems too in control all the time, and even when he’s gotten the better of, he seems to recover rather quickly. Also, the W Group is the only thing he really has to lose or gain through his success or failure and since we have no idea what it really is or what the company does, we have no idea what the consequences would be if it were bought out. If Largo truly did not want to be part of his father’s corporate world, he had ample opportunity to just leave and let the board members hash it out. He suddenly accepts the role of leader without ever really having to deal with it.
There’s also the problem of characters being introduced with pretty hefty fanfare and then never seeing them again. For instance, Nerio Winch’s butler Gauthier is introduced in one scene where he meets Largo, and he gets some funny dialogue and he’s set up to be one of Largo’s right-hand men, then we see him in another scene where he doesn’t do anything, and then he’s never in it again. So what was the point? Even more baffling is a character called Miss Pennywinkle. She is talked about early in the movie as just a throwaway name of someone who works for the W Group, then, while Largo kicks in a bathroom stall door looking for an assassin, we see a woman sitting on the toilet and Largo says, “Ah, the famous Miss Pennywinkle!” and then she is not in the movie again until the end when we see her applauding in a crowd scene. Glad she got a great entrance for absolutely no reason. I kept wondering if people in Belgium were meant to know who they were, and knowing that it was based on a popular comic book sheds some light on that, but as far as I, the uninitiated American filmgoer, am concerned, they mean nothing to me and serve no purpose in this film. It’s akin to The X-Files movie, where The Lone Gunmen show up for one scene and then never come back; great for fans of the source material, completely useless to everyone else.
If the movie has any redeeming features, they are the direction and cinematography. The film was shot on location in these different exotic places and there are numerous gorgeous helicopter shots of them. Hong Kong specifically is presented so fantastically that I often just stopped listening to the movie and daydreaming about taking a vacation there. The action sequences are done very well and fast-paced, though for the kind of movie it is, they are surprisingly few and far-between. Director Salle knows how to shoot things to make them look dynamic and interesting and it’s a shame that he didn’t co-write a better film to accompany them. If ever the James Bond franchise is looking for a new director, I’d nominate Jerome Salle for the position as he has a way of making everywhere look amazing, even the relatively deserted Yugoslav plains.
Overall, though, The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch is a throwaway entry into the action-adventure oeuvre. Decent sequences, nice location shooting, and a pretty French girl who’s naked a couple of times might make for a good 10 minute short, but really don’t pan out to a 108 minute feature. This movie could have been very exciting and entertaining, but in almost every storytelling department, the script fails to live up to the rest of it. But this wasn’t made for Americans, and I get that. In fact, since the initial release of this film in 2008, they’ve made and released a sequel to it which came out in Belgium in February of this year. So, perhaps if this movie does okay, we’ll get the sequel in a couple of years. I won’t be watching it, though; I’ll be watching a travelogue about Hong Kong instead.