If you've ever wondered if anyone has thought to design a pun around the homonyms "Rimbaud" and "Rambo," that moment arrives fairly early on in Micmacs, the latest noisy, handmade contraption from Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie, The City of Lost Children, A Very Long Engagement), when an arms dealer tells his young son that he's just made a speech to clients in which he compared himself to the famous French poet. The son, however, has an idea what his father does for a living, and confuses him with the iconic Sylvester Stallone character.
It's a light, tossed-off moment in what becomes an extremely labored exercise in the little people getting their revenge on the masters of war. While Jeunet has toned down his usual frenetic, Terry Gilliam-esque whimsy somewhat, he reaches for the pacifism and internationalist tone of such Chaplin masterpieces as Modern Times and Monsieur Verdoux.
As usual with Jeunet's films, there's a prologue in which a calamitous event in the main character's past charts a course for his or her destiny. In the case of Bazil (Dany Boon), when he was a child, his father was killed defusing a land mine in Morocco. We meet him 30 years later as a humble video store clerk mumbling along to Humphrey Bogart's dubbed lines from The Big Sleep. Just as the Howard Hawks film nears its conclusion, a shooting occurs outside the store and a stray bullet lands in Bazil's brain.
The doctors save his life but are unable to remove the bullet safely. The now semi-functional Bazil loses his meager job and apartment and descends into dignified dereliction. The film's most inspired moments come here, as Boon mimics Chaplin's Tramp in a few wordless set pieces that pay homage to the city and the poor, as when Bazil bathes by racing alongside a street-cleaning truck. The homeless Bazil meets a group of likeminded misfits who operate a fanciful salvage shop below a refuse dump. Among the gang are a human cannonball, a contortionist, a mentalist, an African ethnographer and a pardoned criminal. Played by familiar Jeunet gargoyles, they're all damaged castoffs who have found a common vocation of making wonderful contraptions from other people's junk.
Bazil, who really doesn't show much inclination for vengeance or group leadership, somehow organizes his motley crew into an Ocean's Eleven-type gang in which everyone's special power comes in handy. They target two rival arms dealers, headquartered on the same city block, that are responsible for his misfortunes. Jeunet, borrowing from cinematic sources as old as Feuillade's Les Vampires, as famous as Kurosawa's Yojimbo or as recent as Pixar, has Bazil's gang enter into increasingly sophisticated acts of sabotage against the arms merchants, thus turning them against each other.
But as worthy as the film's targets are (and, occasionally, the script stings, as when one arms dealer quizzes his son about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki death tolls, or when we see a glimpse of a dealer in a pose with a man who looks like Nicolas Sarkozy), it runs out of steam after about 45 minutes. The characters don't develop at all—the band of outsiders are all sentimental, two-dimensional constructions—and the film becomes a succession of ever-escalating set pieces with ever-diminishing returns (the run time is only 105 minutes or so, but it's still at least 20 minutes too long). One rather wishes that the film had stayed closer to its strengths; there's a bleakly funny bit involving a land mine in a soccer field, for example, and near the end we see one of the creations of the shop beneath the junkyard, a blue animatronic dress, dancing in a suspended swirl. It's one of the lovely moments that cut through the film's tedious clatter, making you want to see a French movie. Just not this one.