With some movies, you don’t care so much about the plot as you care about the ride that it takes you on. The Terminator (1984) was one such classic film; Jason Statham’s manic run in Crank (2006) was another. I’ve just finished seeing Sleepless Night (2011) for the third time and thought it was about time I reviewed it here.

This is a blisteringly paced French crime drama (actually it’s a joint venture between France, Belgium, and Luxembourg) which was originally titled Nuit Blanc. It starts out like a shot out of a cannon and never loses its momentum or its sense of dread.

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The plot? There is the barest outline of a plot, but who really cares? Two corrupt cops (the dubious “good guys”) rob a few drug dealers of a major cocaine shipment in Paris. But things go wrong. They go very wrong. The hold-up turns into a bullet festival, and deaths result. Worse still, one of the cops, named Vincent (Tomer Sisley), is recognized.

Vincent’s partner in crime, another cop named Manu (Laurent Stocker), isn’t happy either. We get the sense that he will not hold up under the strain of these developments, and that it’s only a matter of time before he rats someone out. The discovery of the robbery has now made them hunted by both cops and drug dealers.

Word gets back to the gangster owner of the cocaine shipment, a greasy Corsican nightclub owner named Jose (Serge Riaboukine). He’s not happy about this, not at all. So he kidnaps Vincent’s young son Thomas (Samy Seghir) and calls up Vincent for a little chat. The deal is this: bring me back my drugs, and I’ll let your son go.

And thus the stage is set for one of the most exhilarating rides in recent movie history. Vincent agrees to meet the Corsican at his nightclub lair, which is called Le Tarmac. And it seems like things should be so simple. Vincent turns over the drugs, and he gets his son back.

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Nightclub on steroids: the set of Le Tarmac

But screenwriters need grist for their plot mills, and what seems simple never really is. There is a subplot where a couple of cops from internal affairs, Lancombe (Julien Boisellier) and Vignali (Lizzie Brochere), are following Vincent. Delphine sees Vincent stash the drugs in a restroom, and things begin to unravel for Vincent from there.

Most of the film’s two hours are spent in chases, fights, and double-crosses inside Le Tarmac. Never did a nightclub feel simultaneously so claustrophobic and yet labyrinthine at the same time. Director Frederic Jardin ingeniously constructed Le Tarmac just for this film, and his attention to detail shows in every frame of the shaky hand-held footage. By depriving us of our sense of spatial relationships, we are kept permanently on edge, uncertain of who is lurking around the next corner or within the crowd.

It is 41-year-old Tomer Sisley who really carries the show. His performance is nothing short of incredible. I knew nothing about this actor, but according to his Wikipedia page, he was born and raised in Berlin but has worked as a stand-up comedian in France. From watching this film, this is about the last thing you would expect from this actor in real life.

He obviously has some martial arts training, and he leaps, jumps, lurches, stumbles, and sprints around the club, clutching his wounded abdomen, while at the same engaging in some of the most intense fight scenes I can recall in recent years. The kitchen fight scene between him and Lancombe is a masterpiece of choreography.

He has a lean, rawboned Middle Eastern look about him that is able to switch from ruthlessness to sentimentality at the drop of a hat.

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Vincent (Tomer Sisley) doesn’t like being tailed by Internal Affairs

Every time you think you have things figured out, a new curveball is thrown at you. We think Vincent is corrupt. Is he? Or is he working undercover? Lancombe is a good cop who’s chasing bad guys…or is he something more sinister?

There are even irreverent bits of humor here. In one montage, Vincent drafts illegal alien kitchen workers to help him prepare a batch of phony cocaine made from Ziploc bags of flour. In another, Vincent grabs a stunned nightclub girl and whisks her around on his arm for a few minutes of screen time as she gradually becomes attracted to him.

The last ten minutes of the film are incredible. We leave the nightclub and take to the highway on a high-speed car ride that has some brilliant action scenes and plot resolutions. All in all, this is an expertly done action film, and well worth your time.

I was disappointed to hear recently that Sleepless Night has been remade for American audiences. Don’t even waste your time. See the original instead, in French with English subtitles if needed.

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