Despite its headline-grabbing title, Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables is less reminiscent of Victor Hugo’s classic than it is of a far more recent influence – the Denzel Washington cop thriller Training Day. All of the ingredients of Antoine Fuqua’s film are here – the first day on the job of a rookie cop, the antagonistic factions within the projects, and disturbingly blatant police corruption. It makes for an exciting but over-familiar powder keg of a movie, one that starts strong but loses steam as it rushes headlong into cliché.
It’s July 2018, France have just won the World Cup, and a scorchingly hot day of 35C is testing the social cohesion of Paris. Into this heady mix steps rural cop Corporal Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), about to start the longest day of his life as he’s introduced to the less-than-pleasant policing methods of Paris’s Street Crimes Unit, led by dimwit loose cannon Chris (Alexis Manenti, who also co-wrote the script). A stolen lion cub has inflamed tensions in the local projects, and the particularly chaotic arrest of the kid responsible leads Chris’s partner Gwana (Djebril Zonga) to commit a shocking act of brutality, caught on camera by a kid with a drone. From here, the hunt is on, as every faction in the projects, from the cops to the local imam, chases the incredibly valuable footage.
Ly takes his time setting this plot up, carefully setting up the geography of and internecine conflicts within the projects before letting the action loose. It brings a welcome texture to proceedings, but does mean the first act moves at a glacial pace. When the set-pieces arrive, though, they’re thrilling, the documentary style immersing us in the noise and violence of the clashes and finding exciting new ways to show Paris to an audience, no mean feat for one of the world’s most filmed cities.
Yet, despite how well-shot the action is, with powerful performances to match, especially from Bonnard and Zonga, it eventually hits a point of diminishing returns once you realise that nothing much new is being said here. Les Miserables is clearly striving to be ‘of the moment’, but its focus on the police and how Bonnard’s One Good Cop makes a difference keeps it from achieving that goal. The residents of the projects are integral to Ly’s world-building, but don’t get much individual character, to the point that you don’t care anywhere near as much as you should when they face mortal peril and an actively hostile justice system.
Add to that a credulity-straining and pointlessly ambiguous ending and you have a film that fails to live up to its considerable promise. The early hunts for the missing lion and its captors are edge of your seat, blackly funny stuff, and it’s unbearably tense as the inevitable flashpoint of catastrophe approaches. But you’ve seen this before, and as obviously talented as Ly is as a director, with a kind of kinetic sensibility that can seem lacking in a lot of French cinema, Les Miserables needs a stronger vein of originality to reach the heights it’s aiming at.