Two decades after his arrest in the Sudan, Illich Ramírez Sánchez (aka Carlos, aka Carlos the Jackal) seems like a comic book super villain come to life. Throughout the '70s and '80s, he murdered and kidnapped his way across Europe, promoting and funding terrorism when he wasn’t actively taking part in it. He was a terrorist celebrity, a name brand when it came to destabilising regions and promoting causes, an arrogant, violent thug and a killer. His life was like a knife-edge spy thriller, and in this three-part series, French writer-director Olivier Assayas gives it the breathless, all-action treatment it deserves.
Terrorism in the '70s combined with the mass media to create something new. It wasn’t about killing as many people as possible as part of a tit-for-tat war, it was about making a statement, about getting people to pay attention to your cause. For Sanchez (Édgar Ramírez), a Marxist born in Venezuela, that cause was (initially) Palestine. But as this miniseries shows, what started out as idealism soon became something much more personal – a drive for personal power and glory that saw the brash, swaggering activist become something much more brutal.
For a five-and-a-half-hour series, Carlos zips by at a pace that puts most thrillers to shame. Assayas turns a hefty slice of geo-politics into a breathless soap opera, with Carlos constantly dealing with power struggles and betrayals while running as fast as he can to build and maintain his status as Europe’s number one go-to for murder and carnage. His terrorist actions are always gripping viewing, but it’s what’s happening around them that are the meat of the story. Being a bad guy isn’t just about turning up and taking hostages, but how you dance between your deadly employers and your murderous rivals. Occasionally the police might come knocking, too.
Each instalment of this three-part miniseries could stand up as a film in its own right. The first starts in 1973, as Sanchez (Edgar Ramirez) is trying to establish himself as a major player in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) by carrying out attacks in London and across Europe. Even early on it’s clear he has his sights set on making a name for himself, which might not be the wisest move in his line of work – especially after he shoots a number of police sent to arrest him. No surprise, then, that he ditches his real name for Carlos – “the Jackal”, a reference to the thriller about the (fictional) attempted assassination of Charles de Gaulle, was added later by the press.
Part two mostly covers one of the most spectacular acts of terrorism of the 1970s – leading a small band of militants, Carlos enters the headquarters of OPEC and takes a range of ministers and delegates hostage to attract attention to the Palestinian cause. It’s immediately successful, catapulting Carlos onto the world stage. There’s just one problem: how are they going to get away with it? Their escape plans are sloppy, their requests irrational or impossible, and when Carlos decides to change his objective – going for a big ransom instead of the agreed-upon murder of various dignitaries, most notably Saudi Arabia's Sheik Ahmed Yamani – he turns his back on everything he supposedly stood for.
By the third episode, Carlos has become a terrorist for hire, moving between causes from his base behind the Iron Curtain in Budapest. A money trafficker and arms dealer, he’s more about pulling strings and arguing with those around him than getting his hands dirty. But a change is coming in global politics, and with the old Cold War dualities heading out the window, he’s about to become a lot less useful – and for many in the West who haven’t forgotten his crimes, a lot easier to find. But Carlos may still have a few tricks up his sleeve…
For such an extensive look at one man, Carlos rarely gets under its protagonist's skin. But that’s the point – Carlos is constantly putting on a show, whether it’s for the media, his hostages or his comrades, shouting and berating those around them in a steady stream of lecturing and complaints. The reasons behind his actions don’t really matter because, as this miniseries makes clear, they increasingly don’t matter to him. He’s responsible for acts of terror because he’s a terrorist; he buys into his own legend.
None of this would hold up without a consistently compelling performance from Ramirez. His Carlos is a strutting, charismatic thug who makes his schemes work through sheer force of will, bringing his underlings to heel time and again even as he fails to follow through on the promises he makes. Even now, when criminals and anti-heroes are common leads on television, he stands out. He’s a selfish, self-obsessed, abusive monster, and you can’t take your eyes off him.
Stream Carlos now at SBS On Demand: