Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
There’s another cop movie in theaters this weekend, and it’s nominated for the Oscar. Don’t let the subtitles throw you, “Les Misérables” is as broadly entertaining as it is thought-provoking.
Officer Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) couldn’t have joined the Anti-Crime Brigade on a worse day. A recent transfer to the department from another city, Stéphane is rudely introduced to the impoverished suburb of Montfermeil, France, by his cynical new partners, the abusive Chris (Alexis Manenti) and the physically intimidating Gwada (Djibril Zonga). They give Stéphane the lay of the land. Gangs, brought together by race and religion, run the town.
After having some fun with Stéphane, Chris and Gwada get a call about a fight in progress. They discover members of a circus company threatening a gang leader. A melee is possible, but Chris calms things down. A lion cub has been stolen from the circus. To head off a war, they must find the animal. The time bomb is ticking.
“Les Misérables” is both a conventional cop thriller and a meaningful social drama. While it leans heavily into the action elements, especially as it concludes, the film’s commentary on economic disparities and policing hits hard. Chris represents the rough, smash-mouth approach, and the devoted Gwada follows him as his muscle. Stéphane is an idealist that tries a different approach to conflict resolution. It’s that approach that Stéphane naively thinks is new to the harsh environment in which he finds himself.
Thematically, there may be a veiled connection to the famous Victor Hugo novel of the same name. Co-writer/director Ladj Ly comments on the relationship between the law and society in France. His chief protagonists color outside the lines to resolve impossible situations. And there is a moment, or two, of redemption. But, perhaps, it’s the literal meaning of the words that ring most important. “Les Misérables” translated into English is “the miserable ones.”
And everyone in this film is miserable on some deep level. Economics is important, but lack of opportunity to move up is the festering undercurrent. One subplot involves a boy who captures a crime on his drone. In their depressed community, the boy and his youthful friends roam the streets aimlessly. They are left, it seems, to raise and govern themselves. But if they step out of line, a local gang will take control. The police are on the sidelines, only interceding if the need becomes great on a macro-level.
And this is where Ly and his co-writers Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti (who also plays Chris), transcend the average cop film. The police and the gangs work together to keep the peace. And that means the authorities look the other way most of the time. It’s a necessary evil, but as this film posits, it’s not sustainable.
Aside from the layered social commentary, “Les Misérables” is a solid pot boiling thriller. With elements of “Training Day,” “Assault on Precinct 13,” and Dennis Hopper’s 1988 film “Colors,” it paints a familiar enough picture for viewers who are merely interested in being entertained instead of being challenged. There’s even a thrilling sequence that will remind some of “The Raid: Redemption.”
Since this movie was shot on 16mm film, the gritty elements pop. Cinematographer Julien Poupard builds on Ly’s visuals from his 2017 short film “The Pitiful” to craft images that are earthy and exciting. At times, the action is intense and the handheld approach helps put us graphically in the scene. It’s a testament to the use of film over digital.
With its energetic camera work, natural performances, gritty locations, and almost real-time structure, “Les Misérables” should be broadly appealing for the seasoned cineaste and those looking for a foreign language picture that’s not foreign in plot.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com