Les Miserables (2019)

2019 | rated R | starring Damien Bonnard, Alexis Maneti, Djebril Zonga | directed by Ladj Ly | 1 hr 44 mins | In French with English Subtitles |

Titled after the Victor Hugo play and advertised with an image of a crowd packed before the Arc de Triomphe, I actually thought Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables was going to be a documentary about French protest movements or the 2005 French riots. Instead it’s a cop drama that exists in the wreckage of those riots, where tensions between the police and African-heritage youth are at a constant boil. Chris (Alexis Maneti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) are two members of the Anti-Crime Brigade who have been patrolling this particular suburban neighborhood for 10 years when Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard, Dunkirk), a more idealistic out of area transfer they immediately nickname “Greaser” joins their unit.

The meat of the film follows one long, very eventful day. Even at an average 104 minutes the movie feels very full and like the best movies, by the time it’s over you feel like you’ve gone on a real journey with these characters. The film is set in Paris but aside from the world cup victory opening we don’t stroll by picturesque landmarks, we go deep into the unglamorous city estates. For Ruiz the conflicts come from all sides, unit head Chris seems crooked, arrogant and abusive, relishing in the power trip that comes with the badge. Meanwhile, a band of gypsies from a nearby circus roll into the neighborhood threatening a race war unless their kidnapped tiger cub is returned. An act of reckless endangerment puts the squad on the run to cover up their mistakes. The movie does a wonderfully satisfying job of setting up these characters – the cops, the neighborhood kids, the gang lords who run the area, a young boy using a drone to spy on girls  – and then sends them hurdling together.

The Chris/Ruiz dynamic seems like it would first play out like Training Day, and to an extent it does, but with a lot more nuance. Ly is interested in sketching out everyone’s motivations here, how and why their situations make them do what they do. That Chris and Gwada have become what they’ve become because of the pressures of the streets pushing them to that near-breaking point. The kids similarly pushed by the cycle of police abuse.

This Les Miserables is terrific.  Tense, smart, relevant, terrifically acted, snappily put together and viciously entertaining. A gritty, sweaty true-to-form cop movie that should be a new standard bearer for the genre.

4  out of 5 stars

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