Before the release of Michael Mann's brilliant heist film 'Heat' in 1996, the media and punters, understandably, became fixated on the fact that, after years of what ifs, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino would be in the same scene together. One wonders was it the same in France before the release of '36', a police drama that owes much in feel to 'Heat' but instead of telling the story of a cat-and-mouse game between a detective and a thief, focuses on the battle of wits between two police officers.

With the head of the detective squad in Paris, Robert Mancini (Dussollier), due to retire, the search is on for a successor. Mancini's own preferred candidate is Léo Vrinks (Auteuil), Head of the Anti-Gang Squad, but Organised Crime Unit boss Denis Klein (Depardieu) is also in the running. There's bad blood between the two men - former friends who seem to have fallen out over Vrinks' wife (Golino). With an armed gang running amok in the city and robbing security vans with ease, both Vrinks and Klein know that whoever brings them in will get promoted. But just how far will they go to do it?

With both Auteuil and Depardieu playing characters we don't normally expect from them, and a brilliant build-up, '36' has much for crime film fans. Here, the cops are far from perfect - willing to cut corners and take matters into their own hands if it means their concept of 'good' will outweigh the bad. Director Marchal, himself a former officer, deftly contrasts the after hours loneliness of police life, the moments of chaos and the rivalries and power-plays on and off the street - Auteuil capturing the weariness of a burned-out detective and Depardieu chomping up his share of scenes as one very bad man.

Where Marchal lets himself and his leading men down is towards the closing stages of the film, where the grit and edginess is partly replaced by some melodrama that's laid on far too thick and tampers with the story's energy. It's almost as if this film about hard men suddenly becomes a weepy.

That said, Marchal redeems himself with an ending which, while making you suspend disbelief quite a bit, also ties up some of the plot strands brilliantly.

A Hollywood remake is in the works - jump on bandwagon before it gets rolling.

Harry Guerin