Killer Charisma

A legendary terrorist comes alive in the grand new epic Carlos

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IFC Films

Edgar Ramirez in Carlos

Carlos the Jackal—the name given to the Venezuelan revolutionary Ilyich Ramírez Sánchez—could have stepped out of an espionage thriller, and in a way he did. The nickname came from Frederick Forsyth's 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal, about an assassin hired to kill Charles de Gaulle. Later, Carlos' legend inspired elements in Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six and Robert Ludlum's Bourne novels. Now he gets his own movie epic: Olivier Assayas' grand, churning Carlos, which is being released both at its 5½-hour length, as originally shown on French TV, and as a 165-minute greatest-hits version.

Carlos, embodied with a quick intelligence and a thrilling physicality by Edgar Ramirez, had plenty of hits in his 1970s prime: the bombing of a Paris restaurant, the killings of ambassadors and, most notoriously, the 1975 kidnapping of OPEC ministers in Vienna. Charming and lethal by turns, gifted at languages and disguises, Carlos became as famous as an undercover murderer can be. When he takes his OPEC hostages on a flight to Algiers, an African diplomat asks for an autograph.

In a Babel of languages (French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Hungarian and Russian—but mostly English), the script by Dan Franck and Assayas bustles across a quarter-century of modern history. The tone is neither censorious nor sanctifying; nor does the film really explain Carlos. Assayas, whose Summer Hours was for many critics last year's best foreign film, must figure that the forces that birthed the Jackal (Sánchez's revolution-minded father, for example, who named the boy after Lenin) are of less cinematic interest than his crimes and achievements. He may be right: in movies, show beats tell.

It's quite a show, a panoramic depiction of Carlos' murders (say, of the two Paris detectives who try to arrest him) and botches (often because his co-conspirators were a clumsy lot). A revolutionary stud, Carlos is no feminist. His closest relationship is with the German radical Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstätten, exuding a feline sexuality that Hollywood should take immediate note of), who wants to go on kills but is kept around for ornamental value.

Carlos aims at a high target—it wants to be the Lawrence of Arabia or Godfather of international terrorist epics—and almost hits it. The film is a series of enticing vignettes, with the pleasures of melodrama and the suspense of wondering who's to be blown up next. You won't find a more ambitious or explosive picture this year.