Vincent (Tomer Sisley) tracks down a gangster in Sleepless Night.
Better than Bond, better than Bourne, better than Bauer, the new French thriller Sleepless Night sets a new bar for white-knuckle action movies. Taking place over a 24-hour period and primarily in one giant nightclub, the film is intense in ways no other has been in years.
Vincent (Tomer Sisley) and his partner, Manu (Laurent Stocker), are cops without scruples. At the drop of the hat, they rip off a powerful gangster, Marciano (Serge Riaboukine), stealing a bag filled with cocaine and leaving a body in their wake. Vincent is left with a somewhat serious knife wound, but hours later, it's back to his office and normal routine, which involves looking after his teenage son, Thomas (Samy Seghir).
Just hours after stealing the drugs, however, Vincent gets a call from Marciano. He's pissed, wants his cocaine back, and has kidnapped Thomas as leverage. It's a simple enough trade-off, or so it seems at first. Vincent grabs the bag of drugs and heads over to Marciano's massive nightclub, but he's not alone. Two fellow officers, Alex (Dominique Bettenfeld) and Lacombe (Julien Boisselier), complicate matters in totally unforeseeable ways, and as the night goes on, the list of people Vincent is trying to elude grows, though his son is nowhere nearer safety.
The cast of characters at the center of this sticky situation are all incredibly interesting. They act in purely self-interested ways, which complicates things further. Vincent simply wants his son back, while Marciano wants to make sure his clients get the product they were promised. Said clients want Vincent dead for trying to pull one over on them, while Alex and Lacombe appear to want similar justice, albeit a more by-the-book brand of justice. So Vincent spends hours in the same building, sometimes only a few feet from his son, with all these different forces conspiring against him. It's an inspired premise, and the stakes are high, but without such a strong, stylish, and focused vision from director Frédéric Jardin, it's simply another entry in a familiar genre.
The film starts with a bang. Those who lauded the opening sequence of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive will love Sleepless Night's inciting incident. The angles are extreme, the music is thumping, and it's filled with truly palpable tension, which is all the more remarkable considering we don't even yet know who these people are.
And scenes this good keep on coming. There's a darkly comedic mini-chase across the nightclub's dance floor that happens shortly after Vincent misses out on perhaps his best chance to escape with Thomas (darkly comic because "Another One Bites the Dust" plays over it). The film's bullet-heavy climax is another high point, but the most thrilling, best choreographed scene in this movie—and probably every other in a long time—is a kitchen fight between Vincent and Lacombe. They beat each other nearly to death with everything they can get their hands on. It's very Bourne, but feels more natural and is definitely more coherent.
It's never clear whether Vincent is a hero or anti-hero, but our allegiance belongs exclusively to him, even when he starts assaulting cops and shooting at bartenders. As the night wears on, he really starts to lose it. Anyone in a blue polo shirt is Thomas, and the gaping wound in his side means even slight movements lead to searing pain. Tomer Sisley wears this exhaustion and physical and emotional pain on his sleeve like a pro. It's a sensational performance, and his isn't the only one in the film. Serge Riaboukine's Marciano is one of the most fascinating villains in a while. He's cultured—at times more concerned about getting blood on his suit than he is about recovering his stolen goods. He also has genuine regrets about kidnapping Thomas. The filmmakers never make him sympathetic, per se, but he's so much better than most generic thriller villains.
The other character who leaves a major impression is the nightclub itself. To set an entire 90-minute film in one place is a high-risk-high-reward decision, but when that place is as expansive and full of energy as this one is, you know you've struck gold. Jardin uses the club's music as a perfect, fast-paced pseudo-score to the film, while also managing to utilize everything he could possibly play with. The kitchen, as I mentioned earlier, gets used frequently and memorably. Ditto the bathroom. The ceiling becomes quite important (and is the source of a fun No Country for Old Men reference), while many of the club's employees become unwitting (and sometimes unaware) allies or enemies in the deadly drama unfolding around them.
Sleepless Night won't win any prizes for originality, but when it comes to sheer effectiveness and delivering what's promised, not many thrillers—nay, films—succeed like this one. It gives us a simple enough premise, throws in a number of surprising twists, and lets its stylish director and totally game cast do the rest. It's a truly great film, one nobody should miss, that will just tie you up in knots.