Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz starring Jean Reno, Vincent Cassel and Nadia Fares.

Mathieu Kassovitz has little time for the rarefied air of the French arthouse. He called his first short 'Fierrot Le Pou' as a two fingers to Goddard's 'Pierrot Le Fou', he has defended Stephen Spielberg from the tut tuts of older auteurs, told journalists he wants his films to do well overseas and now he's ruffled feathers once again by directing a thriller with American pacing and sensibilities.

Police commander Pierre Niémans (Reno) travels from Paris to Guernon, a University town in the French Alps to investigate the death of a college librarian. The victim was found strung up on a rock face, but Niémans finds the academic community unmoved by the murder and is forced to seek assistance from the mountaineer (Fares) who discovered the body.

Some 300 kilometres away in a sleepy backwater called Sarzac, Lieutenant Max Kerkerian (Cassel) has a far more clock-watching case on his hands. The grave of a young girl who died in 1981 has been desecrated and on the same night her former school burgled. At first it seems that nothing was taken in the break-in, but Kerkerian discovers that the girl's school records are missing and the trail leads all the way to Guernon.

Based on Jean-Christophe Grange's 1998 bestseller 'Les Rivières Pourpres', 'The Crimson Rivers' was a major success at the French box office but is more a curiosity than triumph for a director who shot to fame with his gritty urban drama 'La Haine'.

The first hour is exquisite as Kassovitz divides screen time between the separate investigations of Niémans and Kerkerian, the bloody aftermath in Guernon brilliantly offset by the dull plod of the Sarzac beat. As Niémans attempts to figure out why someone would hack the hands and gouge the eyes of a bookworm, Kerkerian literally stumbles on his own case for want of something better to do, only to find that what should be routine is anything but. The atmosphere is dark and heady - recalling David Fincher's 'Se7en' -and as you realise that both men are coming at the same case from different angles, you know that things can only end badly.

The plot unravels however, when Niémans and Kerkerian team up. Grangé's book is a deep, complex police thriller and Kassovitz cannot do it justice in the space of 105 minutes. Once the action moves solely to Guernon the director puts his foot to the floor, powering ahead to the finish but undoing much of the tension he built up in the previous hour. There's no need for it: he has the viewer cowering in the seat and had no problem adding 20 minutes to flesh out the intricacies of the plot.

There are some superb set pieces and the cinematography is stunning, but when the ending arrives there are too many loopholes. Leaving you to wonder how Grangé ( who also scripted the film) could allow his book to be glossed over onscreen.

Both Reno and Cassel are superb as the dour expert and young hothead but you can't help feeling that Kassovitz had the chance to make a truly terrifying, downbeat masterpiece but ended up instead with a film more likely to make scratch your head than bite your nails all the way home.

Harry Guerin