Robert De Niro’s new mob comedy is darker – and better – than you’d think

Chances are you’ve seen Tommy Lee Jones play a beleaguered lawman before and you’ve seen Michelle Pfeiffer play a mob wife before and you’ve definitely seen Robert De Niro play a not-quite-reformed gangster before. So why should you watch The Family ? Because it’s good. Quite good in fact.

The trailer makes The Family look like a wacky comedy desperate for laughs. That’s not what this film is. There are laughs but The Family is considerably darker than the trailer wants to admit. Sure we chuckle as the newly transplanted “Blake” (real name Manzoni) family visits hideous violence upon ordinary French townsfolk for minor crimes of rudeness but not because we think the townsfolk deserve it. It’s uncomfortably funny because we realize just how impossible it is for this family of violent psychopaths to harmoniously blend in anywhere in a law-abiding society. Most of the time we don’t laugh at all; we just watch the clan’s bloody antics with appalled fascination.

The family is hiding out in a small town in Normandy France under the witness protection program. They’re not very good at keeping a low profile — even the kids are savagely beating their classmates in the first week of school. We know — just as Tommy Lee Jones’ character knows — that sooner or later the mafia killers that De Niro’s character squealed on will show up to rub them all out. The suspense and action scenes provide the real meat of the film’s final third — it’s here where we realize that laughs were never the point of the story.

Each family member gets their own subplot to flesh out their characters. The only one of these subplots that doesn’t really work is that of the daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) involving a romantic entanglement with her math tutor. Younger son Warren (John D’Leo) fares better forming a Chicago-style underworld at school in a matter of days. Of course it’s hard not to miss the three big “name” stars whenever they’re off screen but the film doesn’t suffer from any serious dry patches and you certainly won’t get bored.

There’s a lot of violence and a hefty body count in The Family and the “Blakes” almost straddle the line between anti-heroes and actual villains. When their lives are endangered we root for them to survive but only because the mob assassins are even worse and because we perversely want to continue to watch their psychopathic day-to-day interactions with unsuspecting school bullies and town bureaucrats. (Civilized people don’t actually want to beat dishonest plumbers with baseball bats but we might want to see Robert De Niro do it.)

Action movie auteur Luc Besson ( Nikita 1990) has a real talent for this kind of material and this is probably his most interesting film as a director since Leon: The Professional (1994). Give The Family a look.

The Family directed by Luc Besson starring Robert De Niro Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones opens on Friday September 13