The new French thriller Sleepless Night gets all the ingredients right: it lays out the key players, forces them into conflict, and watches the fists and bullets fly. Crucially, director Frédéric Jardin adds two important details to keep the action interesting. The first is the setting: unfolding almost entirely inside a crowded Parisian nightclub, the film uses the rules and logic of the space to develop suspense. The second is the action: the characters in Sleepless Night are ordinary men and women, not superheroes, and the realism of the film’s violence reflects that. All this should equal a white-knuckle hell ride, but something strangely falters in the execution.
A breathless heist sets the mood. Two armed, masked men stop a car and demand the drugs in the trunk, but their operation does not go as planned. One of the armed men, Vincent (Tomer Sisley), gets stabbed in the chest, and takes off his mask soon after. It turns out Vincent is a police officer who moonlights as a go-between for drug kingpin José Marciano (Serge Riaboukine), and the heist was his proverbial way out. But while José lost his drugs, Vincent discovers he lost his son Thomas (Samy Seghir) after José calls to say he’s taken Thomas hostage in exchange for the drugs. Knowing he’s been beat, Vincent gets the package and brings it to José’s nightclub. But internal affairs are on Vincent’s tail, and they inadvertently sabotage his plan by moving the ransom elsewhere. Now he must think on his feet and brilliantly improvise in order to keep his son alive.
Once Vincent realizes he’s lost the drugs, Sleepless Night unspools at a slow-burn pace. This decision has its strengths and weaknesses. By maintaining a consistent level of tension, Jardin lets the audience understand exactly what the cops and drug dealers are thinking. Sometimes we see the consequences of their choices before they do, and Jardin uses imperfect information to create a darkly comic sense of dramatic irony. But this slow-burn intensity also means the climax has more or less the same level of suspense as all the sequences before it, which diminishes the cathartic release that thriller fans have grown to love. Another recent single-location thriller, The Raid: Redemption (TMT Review), did a terrific job of cranking up the tension until it was nearly too much to bear. Here, the pace slacks since Jardin sacrifices a crescendo for inexorable steadiness.
Even with this deliberate velocity, some sequences are inventive and brutal. Vincent manages to stay ahead of his pursuers by using the nightclub’s landscape to his advantage; the way he eases into a crowd is one of the better uses of subterfuge and pop music in recent memory. Jardin also has his characters spend a lot of time in the kitchen, wringing the location of all its resources. It’s where Vincent has the biggest fight of his night, in a scene filmed so that we can feel his physical strain. So many action sequences rely on stylized kinetics, but the realism of this one reveals an almost existential dimension: a fight unfolds with greater purpose when we can see just how tiring it can be.
A film like Sleepless Nights succeeds or fails based on the likability of its hero, and Sisley brings an intriguing mix of qualities to the role. Vincent’s predicament is entirely his own fault, yet Sisley finds pathos by being neither too heroic nor too dumb. His arrogance can be frustrating, but there are moments when he’s so vulnerable and overwhelmed that sympathy comes easily. Sleepless Night proves special effects and explosions are immaterial when there is a likable hero in a tense situation. The only disappointment is how Jardin’s dedication to realism stymies the expected payoff.