There are no trilled notes, no stirring group musical numbers, no talk of castles on clouds in French-Malian director Ladj Ly’s directorial debut. You will hear, however, the songs of angry men, expressed in a way that drives home the point of their rage and rancor. It is not a coincidence that his cop procedural shares the same name of Victor Hugo’s socially conscious 19th century novel/Broadway musical source material; like the literary landmark, it also takes place in Montfermeil, the township where Les Miz‘s heroes and villains strutted and fretted. Not is it by chance that we see young, biracial characters draped in the French flag and celebrating a national soccer victory in front of both the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe in the movie’s first five minutes. It’s a portrait of a diverse France but also a divided one, ruled by class structures, geographical boundaries and racial barriers. It takes place in a City of Light that sits on top of a powder keg, surrounded by match factories.
Welcome to the first day on the job for Stephané (Dunkirk‘s Damien Bonnard), a veteran cop but a new recruit to an elite street-crime unit — what his partners, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga), call the “Smack Combat Unit.” The former is the de facto leader of the trio, the most likely to harass teen females just because he can, and white; the latter grew up with the housing projects’ population that they’re supposed to protect and serve, is the strong and mostly silent type, and black. In between hazing and razzing Stephané, the two men give him the lay of the land: Criminal enterprises are controlled and regulated within the community. A man known as “the Mayor” (Steve Tientcheu) oversees the majority of illegal business. The cops, naturally, take a cut and can do whatever the hell they please. The Muslim brotherhood, run by Salah (Almamy Kanouté), keeps a watchful eye on everything else. Peace is kept, albeit at a price.
Then the delicate balance is upset when the Roma owners of a nearby circus come calling. It seems that someone has stolen one of their lion cubs. The culprit has been identified as a kid from the neighborhood. Return the cat with 24 hours, they say, or else. The unit finds out the identity of the underage thief — thanks, Instagram — and track him down. When they try to take him in, the preteen ends up taking a flash-ball round in the face. Worse, a drone operated by one of the boys’ peers named Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly) has captured the whole thing live. Now the police have to find him as well and destroy the memory card to save their asses. Meanwhile, the streets are watching and the temperature is rising….
An actor with a handful of shorts under his belt — including a Cesar-nominated 2017 one that served as the basis for this feature — Ladj Ly juggles a variety of perspectives, subcultures and intersecting storylines like a pro. (He also finds a reason to justify the use of drone footage; the cowriter-director should rightfully earn a dozen other awards for that feat alone.) In terms of pacing alone, it’s one of the best tainted-law-enforcement thrillers in eons; even when every party momentarily retreats to their respective corners, the tension still keeps your nerves on edge.
But it’s the way he infuses a regional sense of repression into a warhorse corrupt cops/white knight narrative — and then proceeds to make it feel like a universal indictment of injustice instead of just a flipped bird at France — that puts Les Miserables several cuts above its kindred films, Gallic or otherwise. It ends with an extraordinary set piece involving bottle rockets, shopping carts, ambushes, beatdowns, the equivalent of rats trapped in a maze and a reminder that you can only push La Banlieue so far before it bites back. And then, after a final shot of a stand-off with no conclusion in sight, the movie drops the hammer with a choice Hugo quote: “Remember this, my friends, there are no such things as bad plants and bad men … there are only bad cultivators.” There are no winners in a situation determined by such biased, claustrophobic social constructs, whether it’s in one hood or writ large. Life has killed the dream they dream.