Review: French thriller ‘Sleepless Night’ is a marvel of geography with emotional hook

Geography is one of the most important things in making an action movie, yet it is one of the most egregiously abused things in most big Hollywood action films.  Last week, I ran a series of links out to all sorts of conversations about modern action cinema, and in those various conversations, there many conflicting theories about what works in modern action cinema advanced by the various writers and filmmakers involved.

Action geography has been on my mind for the last few weeks anyway thanks to the screening of “Sleepless Night” that I attended as part of the Toronto Midnight Madness program.  I walked in knowing nothing about the film, and walked out wondering how Frederic Jardin has gone totally unnoticed so far as a filmmaker.  Together with his co-writer Nicolas Saada, he’s crafted a wickedly smart thriller that erupts into flurries of action in scenes that feel real, not like heightened Hollywood hooey.  It’s a smart premise in the first place, but then the film is broken into two long movements, one which teaches you every inch of this giant Paris nightclub, and then one where our knowledge of that location pays off in one thrilling scene after another.

Tomer Sisley stars as Vincent, a dirty cop who has a great plan.  He and his buddy are going to hijack a cocaine shipment and make a big score of their own.  Problem is, they screw up the hijack in the opening scene of the film, and although they end up with the drugs, word gets back to Marciano (Serge Riaboukine), the gangster whose stuff they stole, and before Vincent has time to catch his breath, he gets a phone call.  Marciano has Vincent’s son.  And if Vincent wants him back, he needs to bring the cocaine to the nightclub that Marciano owns.  Throw in two internal affairs officers, a rival gang of drug traffickers, and it turns into a fairly breathless ride that unfolds over one long evening.

Sisley and his relationship with his son is the heart of the film, and even before gangsters show up and threaten his life, his son already sees Vincent as a failure, a disinterested father who only spends time with him out of obligation.  When Vincent realizes he could lose the boy permanently, he realizes just what that would mean to him, and he throws everything he has into saving the boy.  It’s great work, and Sisley makes a credible action hero because I buy the stakes.  He has to pull this off, this complicated juggling act, and somehow survive in a  building where almost everyone wants him dead, and he has to try to find a way to do all this and still walk away with some sort of real life to return to.

How it’s shot is the other half of why the film delivers on its promise.  I shouldn’t be too surprised, since Tom Stern was the cinematographer.  He’s one of Eastwood’s favorite shooters, and he’s done really good work for a lot of filmmakers over the years.  He just wrapped up production on “The Hunger Games,” for example, so he’s a big Hollywood guy.  Somehow, he also ended up shooting “Sleepless Night,” and it’s a real master’s class in action shooting.  There’s a wonderful scene early on where Vincent uses a dance floor full of young Parisians dancing to “Another One Bites The Dust” that is one of the year’s great pure visual moments.

The film gets a little absurd right at the end, and it wears on a few beats past a natural conclusion, but it’s a strong movie overall, and I think audiences here should get a chance to see the original before the inevitable sequel is released.