By Todd Gilchrist | The Playlist September 29, 2011 at 3:59AM
Containment thrillers can often be limited by the landscape of their locale, but in the French film “Sleepless Night,” the nightclub where corrupt cop Vincent (Tomer Sisley) races to rescue his son is expansive enough to make it seem like a mini-mall. Writer-director Frederic Jardin somehow manages to squeeze every last drop of claustrophobia from the massive, multilevel building, even after he’s filled it wall-to-wall with clubgoers, diners, socialites, and especially the odd assortment of cops and crooks who all have a stake in Vincent’s future. Although it’s quite deservedly scheduled for an American remake via the folks at Warner Brothers, “Sleepless Night” is the kind of entertainment that requires little translation to succeed, as its characters and story are so cleanly and cleverly designed that they would work in virtually any language.
The majority of the action in “Sleepless Night” is fallout from the botched drug heist that opens the film: Vincent and his partner Manuel (Laurent Stocker) successfully steal a duffel bag full of cocaine from local mobster Marciano (Serge Riaboukine), but not before one of their victims stabs Vincent and gets away. Even with a notoriously tenacious Internal Affairs officer named Lacombe (Julien Boisselier) after them, they’re not worried, but when Marciano kidnaps Vincent’s son Thomas (Samy Seghir), Vincent agrees to cut his losses and return the loot. Shortly after he arrives at Maricano’s palatial nightclub, however, Vincent is spotted by rookie cop Alex (Dominique Bettenfeld), who moves his stash and alerts her boss, Lacombe.
When he returns to his hiding spot to discover that the drugs are gone, Vincent quickly hatches a tenuous escape plan, using the club’s resources to hide himself until he can determine Thomas’ whereabouts. But as Lacombe and Alex close in on him, and one of Marciano’s colleagues shows up demanding the drugs, Vincent finds himself in a desperate race to rescue his son and save both of their lives.
“Sleepless Night” is the sort of action thriller that’s deceptively simple – at its most basic it's about a guy trying to get out of a nightclub alive – but director Jardin, along with co-writer Nicholas Saarda, make you really, really care about that guy, and then populate the rest of the cast with characters who are equally interesting, and most importantly, whose actions make that single-sentence conceit something much more complex. Although the first time we see Vincent, he’s sticking up a couple of baddies for their drugs, the stab wound he sustains immediately informs us that he’s no superhero, and it continues to affect him as he encounters more and more complications in what was meant to be a fairly routine robbery. But more than that, his very plight – to rescue his son, at all costs – humanizes him in a way that, well, if it doesn’t quite excuse his bad behavior, it at least tempers it with some degree of relatability.
Meanwhile, he also has quite a rogue’s gallery of adversaries, each of whom, in the best possible way, makes Vincent a more interesting character. Marciano is at once a hotheaded gangster, ruthless and violent, but he’s also got a little bit of culture, and he seems to sincerely care for his own family, which is actually a little bit of why he kidnaps Thomas: he understands the motivational value of seeing someone you care about endangered. Not only does this propel the plot forward, it develops Vincent’s character, as he is forced to confront his own negligence as a father, and make appropriate efforts to repair that relationship – failure to do which might result in the admittedly dramatic prospect of death.
On the other hand, there’s Lacombe, who we soon discover is himself crooked, and who plans to double-cross Vincent for his share of the drugs, Thomas’ safety be damned. But while he’s a villain from the pure perspective of the story’s focus on Vincent, Alex manages to provide a counterbalance in that she’s smart, honest and well-intentioned, but in a way that actually makes things worse for everyone involved. Or perhaps more accurately, her efforts up the stakes of Vincent’s efforts to rescue his son, and help steer the plot towards a truly exciting, and meaningful finale.
Then, of course, there’s the nightclub itself, which we're loath to describe as another character in the film, although its layout certainly has more personality than most movie settings. This is true primarily because the rooms, both public and private, are at once sprawling and claustrophobic, which allows the filmmakers to stay self-contained but not become repetitive, creating a familiar landscape that slowly reminds us where we are, and where we want to be. But as a whole, “Sleepless Night” is not unlike its central location in that it’s less uniquely designed than just extremely well-crafted, combining a variety of familiar ideas into one cohesive, streamlined and supremely effective effort. [B+]