"Choice of Arms" is an extravagantly produced French gangster film with Yves Montand, Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu and a message. It's a poignant plea for old French hoods and young French hoods to bury the hatchet and band together against the police.

That's the clearest lesson, anyway, to be derived from the two hours of lugubrious shoot-'em-up-and-chase-'em-down that director Alain Corneau has coaxed onto the screen from a script he co-authored.

The story is another twist on the old number about the retired gangster yanked back into the underworld fray by his forgotten cronies. The gangster is Montand, who has gone to pasture on a picturesque French horse farm, where he and his young wife, Deneuve, have exactly one worry in the world--an ailing mare.

And then they have two--the mare and Depardieu as a trigger-happy young jailbird in flight. Killing a few people along the way, Depardieu comes to Montand in quest of help, but soon he gets the mistaken idea that Montand has ratted on him. And from that point forward it's a case of who can find (and kill) whom first, with a trio of incompetent police detectives figuring elliptically in the equation.

For a time, the movie rolls along in painless, if thrill-less, fashion, and it is entirely possible to take pleasure in watching three confident actors with compelling faces--the craggy, baggy Montand, the ever-devastating Deneuve and the dippily menacing Depardieu (looking quite like Ilie Nastase in the role of a certifiable nasty). Montand and Deneuve have been lushly surrounded, too, by clothes, cars and countryside--Irish as well as French and exceedingly easy on the eye. The overall effect resembles a collaboration between Ross Hunter and Sam Peckinpah.

Mercifully, the Peckinpah aspect looms smaller as the movie progresses, and just when you expect the usual tidal wave of violence, things get rather tranquil--indeed, bewilderingly so.

But in the absence of a slam-bang finish, the movie has no very clear reason for being. The advertising for "Choice of Arms" suggests a larger theme than the need to close the generation gap in French gangdom. "Three People--Two Love Stories--One Choice," say the ads. But there's hardly a sign of love here, unless you count a few wistful gazes at alleged loved ones, and there's little else calculated to engage sympathy or interest.

"Do it fast," says Deneuve when Montand heads out on his reluctant mission of murder.

Unfortunately, she forgets to pass that message on to the director.