Laying itself bare in the not-so-hidden criminal underbelly of Napoleonic France, Jean-François Richet's politically charged historical epic The Emperor of Paris charts the exploits of infamous criminal François Vidocq (played by Richet's frequent collaborator Vincent Cassel) who is dropped into a nest of vipers in the movie’s brutal (and frankly jumbled) opening.

Well-known to his fellow prisoners as ‘the great escape artist,’ Vidocq pulls off a daring getaway and goes into hiding, immersing himself in the beautifully shot, yet surprisingly sparsely populated streets of Paris. With such a renowned reputation, however, Vidocq’s identity is soon compromised and he becomes dangerously entangled with corrupt bureaucrats and common thieves alike, forcing him to out-manipulate his betters, all the way to the top.

The trouble is that its protagonist’s legend is uninspired, with the film consistently opting not to wow us with demonstrations of his famed skillset, but instead with contrived exposition. Ironically, despite featuring such a deft and light-fingered protagonist, it all feels terribly heavy-handed.

It’s a shame for the eminently watchable Cassel, who terrifically showcased his brooding physicality in Richet’s gritty two-part biopic of gangster Jacques Mesrine. The director’s decision to scratch this in favour of copious dry exchanges between Vidocq and a cast of thinly written caricatures (a bumbling copper, a snarling gang leader and a seductive breathy baroness make up the ranks) ensures the punches are euthanised. By always telling and never showing, The Emperor of Paris meanders where it should run, making it difficult to invest in.