Sleepless Night

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/14/12 16:42:46

"A claustrophobic action movie with ice water in its veins."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

As much as action movies and thrillers will often try to impress by their intricacy and build-up to a spectacular climax, there is something tremendously satisfying to the two-step process that Frédéric Jardin uses for "Sleepless Night" ("Nuit Blanche", in the original French): Set it up, play it out. It doesn't always work, but here it makes for a lean, efficient "flic flick".

The set-up: Two corrupt Paris cops, Vincent (Tomer Sisley) and Manu (Laurent Stocker) steal ten kilos of coke from its couriers, but in the process Vincent gets both stabbed and recognized, leading Corsican gangster José Marciano (Serge Riaboukine) to kidnap his son Thomas (Samy Seghir) and demand the drugs in exchange. Things play out when Vincent heads to José's elaborate "Club Tarmac" to make the swap, with internal affairs detectives Lacombe (Julie Boisselier) and Vignali (Lizzie Brocheré) not far behind.

One can often spot an especially well made film of this genre by the way it transitions from the set-up to the payoff, and it's seldom because that switch is invisible. Sometimes, a situation suddenly and violently explodes into chaos. That's not Jardin's game; instead, he nudges the audience to pay attention: Vincent is putting the drugs here and a gun there, but he doesn't notice that Vignali is watching him or that she's doing this other thing. The filmmakers are telling the audience It will be cat-and-mouse time very soon, so scoot forward in your seat a little so you can have a closer look at the game to be played.

At that point, the movie has an hour to go, and director Jardin and his co-writers make the most of it, placing Vincent in situations that will test his ingenuity while also making it very likely that any advantage he gains on his opponents will be short-lived. One of the particularly nifty ways they do this is by the way the various antagonists work to corner Vincent without being either unified or a group that he'll easily be able to play against each other; it's a nifty complement to the club, which despite being big and having multiple environments is still packed tight and ultimately bounded, creating claustrophobia with the illusion of room to work.

It's "antagonists" rather than villains because one of Vincent's pursuers is the most good and honest person in the movie - which makes that character almost pitiable, considering how les flics in modern french crime movies are almost presumed to be corrupt bastards. Sisley embodies that sort of corrupt anti-hero especially well, never trying to make Vincent particularly likable but still getting just enough out of the moments of humanity the script gives him to make him worth the audience's alleigiance, even when desperation makes him behave like a monster. Samy Seghir contributes to this, playing Thomas as a grumpy teen without making him a total stereotype (so well worth rescuing but not a refugee from a different movie). And the pursuers may not be an especially innovative lot, but they're well done: Serge Riaboukine makes the classical gangster with pretensions of legitimacy kind of a smug rich jerk as well, making a nice contrast to Joey Starr's harder-edged, closer-to-the-streets Feydek; similarly, Lizzie Brocheré emphasizes Vignali's newness to the "rat squad" in a way that seems to catch Boisselier's Lacombe flat-footed at times, even when he clearly is playing the character as clever.

Jardin doesn't go in for a lot of big action set pieces - even as the movie as a whole plays out as a game of chinese checkers, the individual encounters often play as the same thing on a smaller scale, a set of moves and counter-moves. Characters tend to survive nasty wounds a bit longer than one might expect - long enough to be a problem to their enemies, naturally - but that can lead to memorable moments. Heck, one of its most memorable kills is its least bloody, despite working the tension of possible discovery even while making a point about how the murderer can expect to get away with it.

"Nuit Blanche" may not quite have the frantic, relentless attack of something like last year's "Point Blank", but it's still thrilling: It's got a combination of ice in its veins and tense claustrophobia that you don't often see, and a minimum about of forced morality to dilute the things that make it tense.

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