Two guys, a girl, and a life of crime

"All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun."

That's quite a statement from Jean-Luc Godard, whose 1964 classic "Band of Outsiders" is returning to American theaters after a long absence. In the years since he made this remark, his name has become synonymous with cinema of the most aesthetically complex and intellectually challenging kind.

He wasn't joking, though. Godard has always been a maverick, and one of his projects in the '50s and '60s was to boost the respectability of Hollywood genre films - westerns, musicals, crime pictures - that more conservative critics dismissed as mere entertainment. Like other members of France's revolutionary New Wave movement, Godard found beauty in the cheapest and scruffiest films as long as they bristled with energy, pulsed with originality, and showed that making a movie can be as personal and poetic as painting a portrait, composing a song, or writing a letter to a friend.

Above all, Godard believed movies should reflect the personalities of the people who direct them. When he made a crime picture like "Pierrot le fou" or "Made in U.S.A.," he wanted to prove that girls, guns, and guys aren't the exclusive property of the big Hollywood studios, but belong to everyone who's thrilled by them on the screen. "Band of Outsiders" is a gangster story seen through Godard's idiosyncratic eyes, twisting Hollywood conventions into fascinating new shapes dreamed up by his own anything-goes imagination.

The guys of the story are Franz and Arthur, two lackadaisical young men who've decided a life of crime is the best route to money and romance. The girl is Odile, a student who knows where a pile of loose cash is waiting to be snatched. Godard observes them closely as they plan the robbery, flirt with one another, hang out in their favorite cafe, and set their heist in motion. The climax is a deadly shootout, but since Godard knows this is only a movie, he follows the uproar with a deliciously implausible happy ending.

"Band of Outsiders" doesn't rank with legendary Godard masterpieces like "Breathless" and "Contempt," which have also been reissued in recent years. But it's a splendid specimen of his freewheeling approach to filmmaking - as usual, he dashed off the dialogue just before the camera rolled - and of his willingness to break the rules of traditional film storytelling. Example: In one of the movie's most famous scenes, the three heroes decide to relax with a minute of silence, whereupon the film's entire soundtrack vanishes for a while.

Two more of Godard's most celebrated stunts are also in this movie. One is a tour of the Louvre, where the protagonists try to break the record for seeing the largest number of paintings in the smallest amount of time. The other is a delightful dance sequence that's been imitated by more than one American filmmaker, including "Pulp Fiction" director Quentin Tarantino, who named his production company A Band Apart in honor of "Band à parte," as this movie is called in French.

In addition to its other merits, "Band of Outsiders" has a dream cast. Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur went on to become two of France's most internationally renowned stars. Anna Karina is the ultimate Godardian actress, still beloved for her performances in several of his early films, including the modernist musical "A Woman Is a Woman," the soul-scorching melodrama "My Life to Live," and the science-fiction allegory "Alphaville."

Although he's been working for decades at a prodigious pace, Godard fell into near-obscurity during much of the '80s and '90s, when many film buffs considered his works too difficult and demanding. In a reversal of this trend, he's been enjoying a comeback in recent years.

His newest feature, the exquisite "Eloge de l'amour," caused a near-riot at this year's Cannes filmfest when an enormous throng arrived at its first screening. It should be coming to American screens before long. In the meanwhile, old and new Godard admirers can enjoy "Band of Outsiders" again.

Not rated; contains violence.

'Band OF OUTSIDERS': Jean-Luc Godard's classic 1964 gangster film, with Sami Frey, Anna Karina, and Claude Brasseur, broke the rules of traditional film storytelling. It returns to American theaters today.

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