LES MISERABLES (2019) – Review
Oh, oh. Didn’t we just endure another retelling of this classic story? And in song this last time? With an actor or two not known for their (to put it gently) pipes? No, it’s the same title, but put that flick out of your head. Along with countless 19th-century costume epics. So we’re not dealing with the stealing of baked goods and a hungry waif and dogged inspectors. Although this film does concern itself with poverty and law enforcement. But there’s class struggle and culture clashes between disenfranchised immigrants. Plus there are some trigger-happy thugs engaged in racial profiling. You may think those problems have only plagued our backyard, but it’s going on all over the globe, in this film and the original novel’s backdrop. This is a very modern-day melodrama that is also titled LES MISERABLES.
The story actually begins on a somewhat high note as throngs pack the streets of Paris to revel in the latest soccer tournaments. The cafes outside the stadium are filled with fans from every class, including some teens from the slum districts. The police precinct that handles that area gets a new addition from the “sticks”. Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), who has moved to the city in order to be closer to his son (his ex has just relocated there). He’s paired with two veterans, hair-trigger Chris (Alexis Manenti) and the more laid-back Gwada (Djibril Zonga) to patrol that low-income housing district of Montfermeil, which just happens to be the area where Victor Hugo wrote the famous title work. It’s there we meet one of the aimless preteens, Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly) who is obsessed with his new drone (which records the neighbor girls as they dress). He’s a minor nuisance compared to the main troublemaker Issa (Issa Perica), who instigates most bits of vandalism and disobedience. The increasingly powerful Muslim brotherhood tries to “clamp down” on them, along with the area’s self-proclaimed “mayor” (Steve Tientcheu), a low-level druglord. The police trio happens upon a heated “blow-up” between him and a gypsy family that runs a ragtag circus. Their baby lion cub has been stolen and its owner threatens retaliation. Ruiz gets them to agree to a deadline for the police to recover the animal. Scouring social media, they trace the cub to Issa. When the trio confronts him at a playground, tensions escalate and Gwada accidentally shoots Issa in the face with his “non-lethal” rubber ball air-rifle. As his friends attack, the men scoop up Issa and try to tend to his wounds (questions at the hospital would be a problem). It’s then that they notice a drone (yes, it’s Buzz) has filmed everything. The men must keep the boy alive and track down Buzz to retrieve the video card before he gives it to the press or posts it online, otherwise, the resulting outrage could engulf the whole city in violence.
First-time feature director Ladj Ly confidently blends several subplots and moods to create a masterful commentary on life in this new century, thanks to the thought-provoking script he co-wrote with actor Manenti and Giordano Gerderlini. The unifying story of Ruiz echos the newbie thrown into the calamity story of TRAINING DAY and COLORS, especially in his relationship with his “guides”. Bonnard has a compelling dignity as Ruiz who wants to try and give everyone the benefit of doubt. This is immediately in conflict with Chris who Manenti plays as a most destructive loose cannon with no empathy or filter. And of course, he easily gives in to his baser instincts, especially when he decides to aggressively harass some teenage women, as Ruiz does his best to disarm this predator with a badge. Zonga seems to act as a buffer as he tries to get between the two men, although he can do little to reign in Chris’s antics. It’s not until he’s along with Ruiz for a post-shift drink that he reveals his real anger and cynicism. Also making an impression is the imposing Almamy Kanoute as Salah whose Middle-Eastern themed diner becomes a DMZ or sanctuary amongst the mounting tension. That best sums up the overwhelming mood of the film since nearly every moment is a potential pressure cooker ready to shoot out scalding steam. That may be best represented by Perica’s heart-wrenching work as Issa, a “bad boy” who is capable of tenderness (especially with the snatched lion Johnny), but his fate in these battleground blocks literally have him up against the wall. In the film’s final moments his psyche reflects the painful scars inflicted by those who should have protected him. He’s now become a dead-eyed monster whose humanity has been erased by this trauma, a symbol to those “thrown away” by the adults. This powerful dramatic thriller shows us that these modern victims of poverty, the hooded, masked hundreds of LES MISERABLES, are just as tragic and doomed as those in Hugo’s masterwork.
3 out of 4
LES MISERABLES opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at landmark’s Tivoli Theatre