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LES HORDES (1991; Video Screams).

Unlike most post-apocalyptic projects, which focus on a lone heroic protagonist, this four-part French sci-fi mini-series paints a sweeping portrait of a country that's gone to hell. Adapted from a 1988 book by Jacques Zelde, directed by Jean-Claude Missiaen and running nearly 5-1/2 hours, its story spans the highest echelons of politics, the media, organized crime, and the law, plus the evolution of its title group. Sounds exhausting? It certainly is, thanks to its hefty roster of vivid characters, intricate power struggles, melodramatic conspiracies, unfettered pretentions, and a look that's more 'WARRIORS' urban blight than special effects-laden wasteland... Sometime in the future, society has collapsed, crime is rampant, the police are outnumbered, and while ordinary people suffer, the 1% live in splendor. Amidst it all, a ragtag organization known as The Hordes has armed hooligans roaming the streets and collecting protection money from traffic-jammed drivers. Within the present government, Elaine Finder (Corinne Touzet) is a cold, calculating, fast-rising star (in large part due to schtupping the Prime Minister) who pushes an experimental idea of revolutionizing overcrowded jails by virtual-brainwashing away prisoners' negative tendencies. François Dunoyer is Georges Frank, a rugged, unorthodox cop tapped for a top-secret assignment that involves faking his own death, going undercover as a homeless derelict and infiltrating The Hordes. Once recruited, he rises within their ranks (but not without one duel to the death, of course), trains these thugs, and soon they're seizing control of competing criminal empires -- drugs, whores, human organs. et cetera. Secondary characters include aged, wheelchair-bound, media-controlling mogul Sprungler (Bernard Freyd); prostitute Sarah (Souad Amidou), who's rescued by Frank and becomes his lover; journalist Yvan Arkady (Féodor Atkine) uncovering Elaine's dark family secrets; unjustly imprisoned reporter Paul Madiran (Simon Eine); plus Jean-Pierre Kalfon as one of The Hordes' officers. By the third episode, The Hordes have cleaned up their public image and resemble a regulated, uniformed police force, while still shaking down businesses, amassing wealth and focusing their political aspirations. Although Frank tries to expose Elaine's secret ties to this group, his credibility is shot after corrupt authorities label him a murdering terrorist. The plot gets even headier in the final leg, with The Hordes (who've now morphed into a creepy, quasi-religious order that appeals to the oppressed masses) rising to elected leadership, power-mad Elaine purging her enemies with the help of Gestapo-esque Iron Hordes minions, and Frank sporting a graying mullet for a loopy forest showdown... The script is packed with vicious, conniving, manipulative characters -- with Touzet's gloriously vengeful villainess at the center of it all -- and piles on so many devious schemes that it's often difficult to keep track of who exactly is screwing who. Though peppered with bursts of action, the filmmakers are ultimately less interested in cheap thrills than dense socio-political issues: how quickly idealism fades, how power corrupts all (even so-called revolutionaries), the easy manipulation of public perception, and how one bad-ass cop wades through this dystopian morass. Despite the occasional flaw (its vaguely upbeat capper teases more than it actually delivers, plus the overbearing soundtrack by French hard rock musician Bernie Bonvoison instantly dates the production) and several tedious portions, this is offbeat, challenging fare that skillfully stretches its small-screen budget and tackles some wonderfully cynical, far-reaching themes.

© 2014 by Steven Puchalski.