It’s no real spoiler to say that the rot goes right to the very top in Jean-François Hensgens and François Troukens’ capable and contained Brussels-set thriller “Above the Law.” The architecture of the seedy crime movie, in which gangster ruthlessness vies with police corruption in a kind of venality derby, is very familiar, as is the hard-boiled conclusion that a criminal with a code is better than a cop with none. But “Above the Law” — which manages to be a less generic title than its French-language original, “Tueurs” (“Killers”) — has more than just the fluid competence of its filmmaking to recommend it. While hardly boasting the most original of plots, it is informed by an authenticity rare for this popular genre with its pre-packaged tropes and formulae. That makes a certain gritty sense when you understand that Troukens, who co-wrote the film with Giordano Gederlini, is himself a fairly notorious ex-gangster; certain elements within this otherwise popcorn-predictable film are thus embellished with the insight of autobiography.
“Above the Law” also offers audiences a “Heat”-style face-off between two of Belgium’s busiest and best-known character actors. Bouli Lanners, recently seen in Katell Quillévéré’s “Heal the Living,” plays grizzled cop Dany Bouvy, who, after the killing of a judge apparently during the execution of a bullion robbery, soon zeroes in on career criminal Frank Valken — played by Dardenne Brothers regular Oliver Gourmet. Bouvy’s second-in-command, the saturnine Lucie Tesla (Lubna Azabal), is as unsmilingly sleek and professional as Bouvy is shaggily unkempt, and doggedly pursues her man even after she begins to suspect that he and his gang may not be behind the murder after all. Valken, for whom this robbery was due to be the “one last score before retirement” of crime-movie lore, is believed to have been the mastermind behind a string of heists, but has never before killed anybody.
The Brussels of “Above the Law” is a noir-ish nighttime place, slicked down by Hensgens’ own camerawork — the co-director proficiently doubles as cinematographer. Clément “Animalsons” Dumulin’s score provides unobtrusively above-par thriller accompaniment, sprouting nicely cold-blooded, propulsive synths during chase scenes. Less successful is an attempt to add some true-crime heft to the functional but uninspired narrative, with its fiction related to an actual series of violent crimes that bedevilled the Belgian capital in the 1980s.
The film is redeemed, however, by its gruff characterization and some surprisingly well-staged and expensive-looking set pieces — notably the initial heist, which involves a minutely timed booby trap across a bridge, and a prison break planned with a keen eye for the practical details of smuggled-in cellphones and improvised hiding places. Even Valkens’ taciturn backstory feels informed by observations that come more directly from the horse’s mouth than usual; if the family man’s offhand comment about not wanting to go on the run again feels atypically heartfelt, perhaps that’s because Troukens himself spent eight years on the lam before giving himself over to the authorities.
You can see a bit of an agenda here, in the overtly sympathetic portrayal of the criminal Valkens as the maligned fall guy whose moral code is flexible around theft, but rigid where it matters. The most violent crime on Troukens’ own long rap sheet is one of which he has always maintained his innocence, and though it’s exaggerated to cold-blooded murder here, the story is essentially one of the good bad guy being set up by some very bad good guys. There’s always something dubious about making a gun-toting gangster into a quasi-folk hero — purely by virtue of him avoiding bloodshed in the commission of his crimes — while the violent finale requires the hitherto smart and cynical Tesla to make a large miscalculation that suggests she has never seen a single policier in her life. Yet when the credits roll on this efficient, reliable thriller and it seems primed for a sequel, for once, that’s not a wholly disheartening prospect.