The French like action movies. From well-acted police procedurals like 36th Precinct to hyperactive testosterone cinema like parkour/sci-fi hybrid District B13, they've been carving out a reliably entertaining niche on the world's independent screens, as distributors continue to market these pictures internationally as art-house fare. Despite the popular conception of French movies as glacial, the country has been producing great action films going back to Un Flic or Le Samourai in the 1970s. If the work often seems to resemble Hollywood output, it's because the best of the genre from both countries have been feeding each other's creative cycles for decades, and few care to work out whether the original templates came from one side or the other. What matters is that the lessons of the canon – the shadow of Michael Mann, Jean-Pierre Melville, Luc Besson – are present in the latest addition to it: Frederic Jardin's Sleepless Night (Nuit Blanche).
The plot is simple, deceptively adaptable and, when summarised, quite uninspiring. We open in medias res with a drug heist during which crooked cops Vincent and Manuel (Tomer Sisley and Laurent Stocker) steal ten kilos of coke from Central Casting thug types but not without killing one and being seen by another. Naturally, the oddly congenial, fashion-obsessed drug kingpin to whom the shipment was going wants it back and kidnaps Vincent's son as leverage. The majority of the film takes place over one night (during which, shockingly enough, none of the major characters get any sleep) in the kingpin's enormous nightclub as various scheduled exchanges go awry and factions of West Indian and Corsican crooks, corrupt cops, the occasional honest one and irate bystanders come together in a glorious mess of action and (over-) reaction.
The film’s impact lies in the way that it sustains serious momentum without resorting to the lazily overblown clichés of so much contemporary action.
The film's impact lies in the way that it sustains serious momentum – a continuous sense of physical and narrative motion along with a dizzying amount of tension – without resorting to the lazily overblown clichés of so much contemporary action. There is no CGI, nothing that can be described as 'larger-than-life', no explosions, no forced romantic interest; everything is claustrophobic, calculated and tightly controlled with no sense of millions of dollars worth of kitchen sinks being thrown at the screen. What we get is old-fashioned filmmaking; a restless, agile camera tracking through the labyrinthine club – which is stratified both demographically and physically – following the groups, playing them against each other like chess pieces, developments choreographed with full awareness of the space they're occurring in. Many modern action films forget the importance of spatial awareness in visual storytelling – doubly important in this genre – choosing to confuse the viewer with a barrage of multiple glimpsed locations. Jardin forces us to find our bearings, just as hapless protagonist Vincent is doing, using every corner (and the innocuous objects found in those corners) in cleverly tactical fashion. The action sequences are intimate and tied to locations – a brutal, protracted fistfight that is a highlight in the evolution of cinematic hand to hand combat, takes place in the large sterile kitchen of the club's attached restaurant. Every steel surface, sharp object and hot liquid in the environment comes into play in a physical conflict that – in the sweaty desperation of the two combatants, not to mention its personal scale – actually feels life or death.
Along with its relentless pacing, the film also boasts a genuine spark of intelligence. The characters aren't imbued with literary depth but Jardin skilfully weaves much implied background and individual idiosyncrasy into them. There's a lot of carefully telegraphed little beats that complicate the proceedings in odd ways – a vegetarian pacifist cop who carries an unloaded gun (which ends up in the protagonist's hands just when he really needs it to have bullets in it), the hostage-taker who doesn't like taking hostages, snippy bartenders, an undocumented Indian sous-chef who helps Vincent. There is an alternately hilarious and discomfiting racial tension between the Corsican kingpin, his West Indian coke buyer and the ethnically mixed cops; these are characters following certain expectations of what policemen and criminals are supposed to do but still have interesting and distinctive personalities driving their actions.
Additionally, Jardin often subverts certain action hero archetypes in fascinating ways, especially with regard to anti-hero Vincent. The man is battling the clock to save his son, certainly. He shows tremendous resourcefulness and uses his surroundings (and his head) in various inventive ways, yes. But he is also disconcertingly human. A knife wound sustained in the beginning keeps reopening all night. As he runs around, bouncing from one antagonist to the next, he gets increasingly exhausted, directorial choices carefully made to indicate just this. He forgets hidden weapons, loses the McGuffin that could save his son, wantonly endangers innocents. And all of it has consequences. When was the last time you saw an action hero sit down in a stairwell to cry over just how much everything hurts? You know how heroes and villains rush headlong through crowds knocking over everyone in their path with no consequence? This is the odd movie where the knocked-over bystander actually gets up and punches out our poor protagonist; a strange little touch by the filmmakers that makes you wonder why every shoved-around Shmoe in every action pic doesn't do the same. At every point, Jardin hangs a left where the less talented would make a right. What he doesn't ever do is trod on the brakes.