Dominik Graf's police procedural The Invincibles flopped upon first release back in 1994. Watch the first fifteen minutes of the director's cut the now-established Graf has assembled and released this week via MUBI, and you'll know why, while also spotting - and perhaps being compelled by - what it was that proved so challenging to a mass audience. For starters, the film opens with a horrendous crime, barely less jolting for Graf's careful way of framing it. The film goes on to set out what is, in procedural terms, a fairly conventional mystery: Karl Simon (Herbert Knaup, Lola's unfeeling banker father in Run Lola Run), head of a Düsseldorf special forces unit, becomes convinced the fugitive who knocked him out during a raid is his old partner, reported dead some years before. Yet it does so in a busy, involved, deeply eccentric manner. Graf's dialogue falls somewhere between stylised and florid; essential plot intel is tossed away as background chatter; while our SWAT heroes are presented as heavy-drinking clowns, men who think nothing of walking the railing of their hotel room balcony in stockinged feet and elsewhere respond to life with such blunt, brute force that they'd trample the nuance crucial to any witness report. There is, in short, an element of risk in the staging - an attempt to go into a genre like gangbusters, and forcibly expand it beyond its usual narrow parameters - which backfired at the time, and which now leaves The Invincibles looking like a distinctive, instructive failure.
Graf's goal here seems to have been anti-realism, to fashion a procedural populated not by familiarly sober, rational hard-boiled types, but a free-for-all of kooks, goons and loons. Our fugitive (Hannes Jaenicke) blows any audience sympathy with his first act. The woman he leaves behind (Meret Becker) is prone to glassy-eyed conversation with a husband who's no longer in the room. Even the married Simon, notionally the most responsible figure in a platoon of meatheaded footsoldiers, comes to seem less and less stable: we're still processing the revelation he slept with the Becker character while he's being wanked off in a hotel corridor by the gallerist he picks up on a security detail. Graf himself directs in a scarcely less impulsive fashion, being at that stage in a young creative's career where he vows to revolutionise the artform he's working in by any means necessary. On the ground, that lofty notion translates into grabbing ideas out the ether and catapulting them into any given shot - so he gives Knaup a leaf to play with for one scene, sets another actor to demolishing a kitchen wine rack, fills a bedroom and then a house with balloons. If you were to plot The Invincibles' narrative line on a graph, it'd travel pretty straight and true: Simon sets about proving that a dead man is actually alive, tracks him down, and finally brings him to some kind of justice. Individual scenes, however, proceed as a series of overworked loop-the-loops; there isn't a single sequence that unfolds according to procedural conventions.
Which sounds like high praise, but I dare you to give The Invincibles an hour of your time without arriving at the conclusion there were reasons said conventions were established, foremost among them being streamlining and clarity. The mystery element here is sunk by a whole lot of extraneous material, flourishes that prove both supremely eye-catching and distracting when you're trying to get a bead on a narrative. (It feels not untypically perverse that an already overstuffed work should be introduced to international viewers in a director's-cut version: the original 35mm footage no longer survives, so gaps in the text have been filled with video inserts in the 4:3 format. They just about take, while adding to the growing sensation of a movie that is just too damn busy for its own good.) From that opening crime scene, there's a surplus of sensation: Graf shows off the SWAT team's weapons in an entirely superfluous shower scene, but also delights in lingering over exposed female flesh. And the expansiveness sees it running around as many locations as a handful of units can reach in a few weeks: by the finale, everyone's halfway up a mountain, seemingly shooting for the stars. Yet the essentials of plot simply get piled on along the way. You begin to understand why the initial word-of-mouth was as dismal as it was: audiences who'd paid to see a good story found themselves confronted by a college nerd's sprawling postmodern experiment - and if you wanted that back in 1994, you didn't have to wait long for Pulp Fiction, a film as effective in its aims as a Big Mac. The Invincibles, by contrast, was pulp stirred with pop rocks, toothpaste and currywurst - fuller and more colourful, yes, but also dangerously close to indigestible.
The Invincibles is now streaming via MUBI.