In "Tchao Pantin," a French thriller smudgy with notions carbon-copied from American police melodramas, Lambert (Coluche), a rum-soaked gas station attendant, befriends Bensoussan (Richard Anconina), a young thief and heroin dealer. The friendship springs up immediately, as if it preceded their first meeting. Sure enough, it turns out that Lambert is an ex-cop haunted by the past, and Bensoussan reminds him of someone from his past.
Through Bensoussan, Lambert returns to the underworld he once scourged, in search of expiation. But his plight is so familiar by now to even the casual viewer of movies and television that it never draws you in, and director Claude Berri never makes Lambert's sense of guilt resonate within anything larger.
Anconina's eyes and tongue, his head and hands, are always poking in different directions -- he seems to be prodding reality, a bloodhound for something to interest him. A wiry actor led by his big, flattish nose like a toy on a string, Anconina gives the movie its only life, and for this sin, he disappears early.
Coluche, awkward and ungainly, moves like Chief Ironside suddenly liberated from his chair. Best known as a French nightclub entertainer, he's not convincing for a second in the movie's action sequences; and while the movie's about his private torture, his narrow eyes and pillowy face keep it private. The love interest is provided by a punk demimondaine, Lola, played by Agnes Soral, who is less ingenue than off-genue.