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We’re all familiar with the revenge thriller. A staple of crime drama since the dawn of the genre, it generally involves our hero, or anti-hero, settling old scores in one bloody, violent last hurrah. Yet despite its title, Tony’s Revenge is less concerned with retribution than it is with portraying one man’s rise and fall, his losses and regrets, the people he loved and allowed to slip away. It becomes the deeply affecting story of “Mad Tony” Roucas, a requiem that charts both his life and the bygone era in which he grew to infamy.
The eight-part series, which can now be seen in its entirety on All 4’s Walter Presents, was made in 2011 and is brought to you by writers Virginie Brac and Éric de Barahir, and director Gilles Bannier, all of whom went on to work on that other great French series, Spiral. Yet this is no procedural police drama.
The series begins with Tony (Simon Abkarian) in his prison cell, watching the news, only to spot his erstwhile partner in crime, Guido (Olivier Rabourdin), who was declared dead two decades previously. This sighting provides the impetus for Tony to take part in an over-the-top prison break organised by his cellmate Kenz, in order for him to investigate the truth about the circumstances that led to his imprisonment all those years ago. Stuck on the outside with the immature-yet-likeable Kenz and his gang of ne’er-do-wells, and on the run from both police and crime lords, Tony sets about tracking down his old associates.
He has little option, initially, but to follow Kenz to his hideout in a Paris estate, and become part of his unsophisticated crew. The age and cultural gap of the pair is ripe for humour – while Tony is a criminal of the old school, with the inevitable self-control that that entails, Kenz is, at the start of the series, rather more concerned with partying and getting laid. The successful, organised heists Tony’s used to are not Kenz’s specialty – his is a gang so chaotic that, to Tony’s disgust, they turn up to a meticulously planned raid on a Chinese restaurant hungover, with plastic guns, no balaclavas, and a crappy getaway car they failed to fill up with petrol. All this is very far from Tony’s strict modus operandi, yet he is forced to adjust to this new breed of criminals, who have little in the way of discipline or respect. Tony the crime lord is thus brought low, yet gradually, he teaches Kenz the tricks of the trade, and in return, Kenz helps Tony take down his old enemies.
But all this is only half the story. Underpinning the increasingly over-the-top action sequences are extended flashbacks, which start in the 1950s Paris of Tony’s childhood and continue over the course of the series to cover his rise from adolescent hoodlum to a feared and successful crime boss at the height of his powers, weaving past and present in an intelligent and absorbing way.
The writers refuse to show their hand immediately – we are led to believe that Tony marries his revolutionary, militant left girlfriend, yet his real wife, Claire (Anne Consigny), makes her first appearance more than halfway through the series. Like Christopher Nolan’s revenge thriller, Memento, Tony’s Revenge is a drama that unravels backwards and is unafraid of taking its time to reveal its secrets. The connections – between gang lords, barristers, police, and criminals – have their tentacles stretching over half a century, yet the past unfolds gradually, taking shape in the present and highlighting the differences between the two. One minute, we are in 1960s Marseille, watching a young Tony (Mhamed Arezki) being called a ‘good lad’ by Père Balducci before recruiting him; the next, we are in the present where Tony and the Balducci sons are mortal enemies.
This is intelligent plotting, yet some of the action sequences require a high degree of suspension of disbelief. The planting of fake drugs, the money laundering, the high-stakes gambling ring Tony is able to stumble into, don’t stand up to much scrutiny. The police, too, are terrible, allowing Tony and Kenz to slip through their fingers more often than is wholly credible. But this is a programme that mixes light with dark, and much of the humour comes from the improbable situations. Some of the disguises Tony and Kenz don are hilariously ridiculous – one minute, Tony is in a headscarf, trench coat and sunglasses, posing as a woman; the next, he is an ageing beatnik in a beret; later still, he is a Saudi prince. Yet the best disguise goes to Kenz, who dons fake dreadlocks and a red scarf to make him the spitting image of Captain Jack Sparrow, a resemblance which is not lost on the police on his tail. “You take Johnny Depp,” comes the order.
As is generally the case with veteran gangsters, Tony has a code, making him a sympathetic, even moral, character – certainly better than his rivals, his associates, or his police nemesis, Janvier (Philippe Nahon), who is as corrupt as the best of them. And much like Neil McCauley in Michael Mann’s Heat, Tony knows that a career criminal is better off being solitary, telling Kenz: “If you want to be a real gangster, you wont have friends, you’ll live and die alone.” Yet, like McCauley, he is also unable to resist letting the woman he loves into his life. As the series goes on, the toll Tony’s criminal career takes on his personal life becomes greater and greater, as he hurts not just himself, but those who love him, especially his wife. Whether his prison break is enough to make amends for the sins of the past is questionable, but it does inspire a reflectiveness in the characters that enables them to come to some sort of peace with themselves and each other.
We’re all familiar with the revenge thriller, but Tony’s Revenge is so much more than it says on the tin. It becomes something quite epic – a swan song not just for Tony but for the world he represents, with its codes of honour and friendship. It is, in its own unique and charming way, an elegiac portrait of a life lived in the shadow of crime.
All eight episodes of Tony’s Revenge are available to stream on All 4’s Walter Presents.
For more information on the other foreign-language shows available, see our Walter Presents TV guide.