Whether your Pavlovian response to Les Misérables is “Ooh, that again!” or “Oh. That again?,” there’s no disputing that Ladj Ly’s latest version is not what first came to your mind when you read that. Although Ly’s feature-length fiction debut shares a title, setting and subtext with Victor Hugo’s novel, it is instead a contemporary David Ayer-ish cop movie crossed with the Dardennes brothers’ social dramas.
Despite that distinctive do-over on Hugo’s blueprint, the ultimate response to France’s contender for the 2019 Best International Feature Film Oscar is, alas, much like the one some might give to another straight-edge adaptation of Hugo’s work: Haven’t we seen this before? Yes, although maybe without subtitles. Put alongside February’s forthcoming Portrait of a Lady on Fire — which transcends any trappings of its respective genre and then some — it seems patently foolish for France to instead push a film that confuses ambiguity for profundity. Then again, “I am the law!” is universally understood bad-cop dialogue in any language.
This particular story of racial and socioeconomic ire boiling over unfolds in the Bosquets neighborhood of Montfermeil, the Parisian suburb in which Hugo wrote and set his novel. Today, it is largely impoverished and culturally influenced by the Muslim and African emigres who live there. Ly grew up in the Bosquets with parents who moved from Mali; making a leap from documentaries, Ly infuses his film with an immersive, disquieting sense of distress and dread.
But by choosing to focus on three cops of varying racial attitudes and moral rectitude, Les Misérables comes off like Do the Right Thing from the perspective of the agitators rather than the aggrieved. Although that plays into Ly’s enveloping technical strengths, it pushes out empathetic humanity or ethnographic expanse required to elicit more than a terse “hmm” when it’s over.
A dead ringer for Michael Imperioli, Damien Bonnard is Ruiz, a country cop on his first shift in the Bosquets after a transfer that will help him see his estranged son more often. Chris (Alexis Manenti) is the unit’s sergeant who, in his supervisor’s words, “goes overboard sometimes” but carries that captain’s flag of solidarity. As goes Chris, so goes the team. Gwada (Djbril Zonga) serves as a translator and token black man, often called upon to defuse strained situations simply because he more physically resembles many of those involved.
The first half of Les Misérables plays like a more temperate Training Day, as Ruiz, Chris and Gwada encounter the Bosquets’ desperate, dissatisfied dreamers. And while some of these cops have no compunction slinging hurtful pejoratives, they must intervene when a caravan of circus performers rolls into the neighborhood demanding justice be served. It turns out someone in the Bosquets has stolen a lion cub from them, which sounds like the sort of lighthearted mission Jake Peralta and his merry bunch of misfits would undertake on Brooklyn Nine Nine.
In Les Misérables, it’s anything but, as shakedowns of Muslim shopkeepers and shaken hands with entrenched gangsters lead the cops to a young boy named Issa (Issa Perica). Their attempt to arrest him turns violent, and it’s captured on video by the drone of another young boy, Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly, the director’s son). From there, the cops embark on a long odyssey to hunt Buzz, placate Issa and keep the mounting tension from turning the Bosquets into a tinderbox.
Although it can feel like an absurdly condensed Wire season, Les Misérables keeps the pace quick, the conversations underscored with anguish and anxiety, and the visual backdrops blurred into something like a basketweave about to snap. In one shot, the Parisian sunset feels like the sky waving goodbye to any and all harmonious notions of tranquility. That’s a harbinger of the horrors in a final act that works itself into a legitimately strenuous, stressful sweat before a cop-out cut to a quote from Hugo’s novel. This Les Miz might achieve a pitch you don’t expect. But do you hear its people sing? Not really.