In theaters this week, Liam Neeson returns to take audiences on another action-packed adventure (Taken 2) where he remains one step ahead of international kidnappers — this time seeking revenge for their fallen sons and comrades from the first installment. But for the couch-bound adrenaline seekers, the American Express/Tribeca Film series offers up Sleepless Night, a French production from Frederic Jardin (of the 2002 comic drama Cravate club) that mines similar territory.
Night kicks off with Vincent (Tomer Sisley), a driven police officer caught up in a botched attempt to steal drugs from a local drug lord/mob boss. He and his partner get unmasked and are forced to kill one of the drug runners in the streets, but another gets away, while also leaving Vincent injured. Before long, Vincent must sprint ahead of eager Internal Affairs officers, constantly question the loyalty of his partner, and deliver the stolen goods before the mob boss kills Vincent’s son who has been kidnapped in order to make sure everything goes according to plan.
Like any modern dark night of the soul, Vincent wanders through techno-infested clubs flooded with too many bodies bobbing along to the beats. There are hand-to-hand fights, choreographed to an inch from the edge of sanity, guns ablazing, and crossed loyalties that bend, break, and re-mend themselves as any semi-aware thriller junkie might anticipate. And yet, through all the cat-and-mouse gaming, there is a genuine sense of engagement that keeps the faithful attentive.
Much as with Taken, we endure messy and overlong (and increasingly unrealistic) fight sequences because we want to see Vincent, no matter how dirty a cop he may be, redeem himself and save his teenage son. He’s a single father, sharing custody with his son’s mother (it is unclear whether they were ever married or not), and it seems like he’s trying, at least, to be a good parent. And like Neeson, Sisley has dark good looks and steely resolve, but because this story takes place in Paris, Sisley’s Vincent brings an exotic otherness, which adds another dimension to the film, especially for American audiences.
We struggled earlier this year to embrace the global and racial dynamics of The Intouchables, even moreso in light of the decision to create a Hollywood remake. As we move beyond the black and white sphere that dominates our mindset, Night drags us into a more complex set of social and cultural divisions. At one point, as Vincent seeks to cover his tracks, he’s interviewing a witness who saw the gun battle on the street and he asks for a description of the perpetrator. The list ticks off — black, white, Arab or Asian — and each grouping comes fraught with its own current stereotypes. The blacks and browns (to be crude about the distinctions), in Europe, speak to both immigrant and terrorist considerations, so it is intriguing, from an American perspective, to imagine what it would take to maintain a sense of political correctness in the face of these ever-multiplying categories.
Of course, Night has no intention of wallowing in these kinds of intellectual and cultural discussions. Vincent engages in individual fights — one after another, in fact — that would obliterate the body or require him to be a super soldier on par with Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne. This is, at its core, very much a response to the mayhem generated by Taken, a product of the Luc Besson action production line, although Jardin isn’t a flash and dash commercial guy like many of Besson’s directing surrogates of late. The rhythms are a bit more studied and patient; the colors less overly saturated; the overall pitch less fevered.
And in the end, Vincent is just a man, a cop and a father, in way over his head. That knowledge and awareness, which Jardin instills in the audience, ultimately helps to rationalize the violent mania. Vincent is more human and because we’re less familiar with Jardin and Sisley, there’s the somewhat thrilling possibility that Vincent may not actually survive this grueling ordeal (even though, it is probably safe to assume that, if nothing else, he will save his son’s life).
Sleepless Night ushers us into another world, one that intriguingly triangulates overblown action movie conventions, murky geo-cultural assumptions and a plain old tale of redemption without keeping us up too late.
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