French-African director Ladj Ly’s debut feature “Les Miserables” gets its title from a line in Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name: “There are no bad plants and there are no bad men. There are just bad cultivators.” And it is set in and around a gang-infested section of Paris where Hugo set part of his story. The bad cultivators are still at work.
The movie has a fairly conventional plot that begins in a way similar to American buddy-cop movies. A fresh-out-of-the-gate officer starts a new job. It’s a routine event, but there are some unexpected differences. First, this rookie cop looks older than his partners. Second, he gives off a sullen vibe, but then he may be following the rookie playbook of it’s better to be seen and not heard.
The new plainclothes officer is Ruiz (Damien Bonnard). He’s assigned to join a patrol in a section of Paris that is best described as an ethnic powderkeg where tourists don’t visit. The suburb is a melange of Africans, Asians, Muslims and gypsies whose resentments spill over into each other’s territories. And children, mostly pre-teen boys, run like wolf packs in the streets working their own scams.
Ly tells the story from the point of view of Ruiz, whose partners are a white cop named Chris (Alexis Manenti), a hard-to-read tough guy sometimes considerate, but other times cruel and racist, and there is Gwada (Djibril Zongo), a tall, lanky black cop who is more sensitive and even-tempered about the ferocities of the community. Ly elicits good performances from the three actors and they click as an ensemble.
The main section of the movie is essentially a ridealong with the cops as they encounter the dramatic and ho-hum incidents that make up their day. Then a lion cub is stolen from a traveling gypsy circus, and the confrontations that ensue threaten to ignite a full-blown gang war that will result in the deaths of innocent citizens. The cops know they have a deadline to find the thief and the cub or blood will be shed.
All the characters, apart from Ruiz, are driven by inner frustrations brought about by living and working in a pressure-cooker environment where the smallest argument or challenge can explode into violence. The cops swagger and act with bravado, but the societal forces of pride, poverty and ethnic mistrust constantly flare up and thwart their efforts to control the situation.
The disparate elements of “Les Miserables” cohere into a satisfying whole, but as the movie goes on, its two major weaknesses emerge. First, as Ruiz, Bonnard is mostly inert and inexpressive until he takes charge near the climax. And the movie stops to have two characters sitting and explaining the conditions faced by the cops even though Ly has already forcefully and clearly illustrated them.
By the end, though, in a claustrophobic and horrific shootout in the corridors of a decaying apartment building, “Les Miserables” successfully retains its mood of danger and desperation.