Early on in 22 Bullets, a Mafioso played by Jean Reno stands over the scared, stripped and bound henchman of a rival don in an empty warehouse. Asking calmly for some information, he gives his word that the man won't be hurt and keeps it. The scene is vintage Reno: cool, menacing and somehow managing to make even the most morally questionable character seem like a decent guy. Few actors make the heavy-with-a-heart role this much fun to watch.
Viewed from the outside, French cinema seems to be populated with effete Parisian intellectuals talking endlessly. But Reno is the anticliché, a throwback to the gruff, populist actors of the postwar era, unafraid to use their brawn to entertain the masses. He was a late bloomer, finding success at 40 in Luc Besson's 1988 film The Big Blue, and wasted no time becoming Hollywood's go-to French guy, taking on roles like the pilot in Mission: Impossible and the police captain in The Da Vinci Code. But his isn't simply the story of the European actor who left home to make it big in America. Reno's work in blockbusters has helped redefine French cinema, by allowing filmmakers to break away from the introspective dramas and have some fun with slick action thrillers. While he was exporting a little bit of France to Hollywood, Reno was also taking some Hollywood back home with him.
The French film industry has traditionally been composed of three main categories: critically lauded prestige pictures, micro-budget art films and silly comedies that only the French find funny. Reno, 62, has dabbled in all three, but for the most part he's been busy carving out a fourth category with films like 22 Bullets. "The center of French cinema is art movies, people navel-gazing," the actor says, sitting in a hotel restaurant in the tourist hamlet of Les-Baux-de-Provence wearing a black T-shirt, black jeans and his trademark stubble. But it is shifting "to something less arty, less 'look how my heart beats and how I function inside,'" he says. "It's now more 'I will entertain you and while doing so will put in some ideas to move you.'"
Reno can take some credit for this shift, mainly thanks to his collaborations with Besson, France's own big-budget bad boy. Many of their films together The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita, The Professional (also known as Léon) are all unabashedly mainstream. While they don't try to mimic what comes out of Hollywood, they do employ some of the hallmarks of a blockbuster: freewheeling fight scenes, breathless pacing, score-heavy soundtracks. The success of the Besson-Reno formula has inspired others: since The Professional was released in 1994 grossing around $20 million (impressive for a homegrown action film) young French filmmakers have been turning out a growing number of high-concept action movies with their share of cinematic flair.
But Reno feels that his and Besson's trailblazing isn't appreciated by France's film circle, at least publicly. "People are afraid to admit that Luc and I created a path, because they can't control that path. And it is a dangerous path," he says. Dangerous because France's film industry largely relies on subsidies, but the government isn't an action fan and French producers aren't comfortable letting the audience alone decide whether a film thrives or dies at the box office. So directors and actors make smaller films, Reno says, which they themselves may not even understand, but which are easier to get produced. Reno's action movies don't necessarily make much more than the top art-house offerings, but he has helped make French cinema more diverse, opening up a new market. He believes the French film industry has benefited immeasurably, in both profit and reach, from its foray into grand-scale entertainment, but that it is loath to herald those types of movies because they don't fit with the image of French cinema as world-renowned highbrow fare. "It's what we call l'hypocrisie Française," he says, rolling his hound-dog eyes.
For all his quintessential Frenchness, Reno is actually a naturalized citizen: born Juan Moreno Errere y Rimenes to Spanish parents in Morocco, he arrived in France at 17 and changed his name late in his 20s. Most of his career has been spent playing gravel-voiced good bad guys, and 22 Bullets is a culmination of all these characters. Reno portrays Charly Matteï, a former Marseille mobster who has given up the criminal life for his family. But then a rival mob boss tries to have him killed, riddling his body with the 22 bullets of the title. He survives, and wants revenge. "Matteï is a character who exudes danger because of his past, who has the potential for frightening violence," says the film's director, Richard Berry, a longtime friend of Reno's who was looking for a project for them to do together when he read L'Immortel, a novel by Franz-Olivier Giesbert based on the life of 1960s mobster Jacky Imbert. "On the other hand, he has immense humanity, great depth and generosity. I think Jean projects all of that."
It was these traits that first made international audiences sit up and pay attention when Reno starred alongside a 12-year-old Natalie Portman in The Professional. ("Without it I might be doing theater in Dunkirk," he says.) The film, about a hit man's grudging friendship with an orphaned girl, also paved the way for others in French filmmaking, such as actor Vincent Cassel and all-rounder Mathieu Kassovitz, to start working with Hollywood.
But it also typecast him as the brooding gunman of few words a Gallic Sylvester Stallone. To remedy that, he appeared opposite Steve Martin in the 2006 remake of the comedy The Pink Panther and its 2009 sequel. After going back to his roots with 22 Bullets, Reno is category-hopping again as a doctor in the upcoming drama The Round-Up, about the 1942 deportation of Parisian Jews. "You can always tell the great actors when they can do both comedy and drama expertly, because they bring comedic moments to dark films and vice versa," says Portman in an e-mail to TIME. "He has that range of nuance intuitively." And without all the talking.