“C’est moi, le loi!” screams a bent cop midway through “Les Misérables.” If he’s trying to emulate the comic-book indomitability of Judge “I am the law” Dredd, his shrill, panicked delivery is a dead giveaway to the contrary. In both a practical and a moral sense, being the law counts for less and less as French docmaker Ladj Ly’s first fiction feature unfolds: A buzzing, sunstruck street thriller, it pits a nervous, trigger-happy police force against an aggravated urban underclass in a battle of wills and weaponry that is all too universally recognizable. Exploring the worn-out housing projects of the director’s own home turf — the outlying Parisian commune of Montfermeil — with a keen eye and an antsy gait, it’s a furious work of social geography that satisfies slightly less as a character piece: In its ambitious attempt to dramatize the violent anxieties of men on both sides of the law, “Les Misérables” risks selling some victims a little short.
A certain other “Les Misérables” also took Montfermeil as its setting, of course: Ly’s choice of title is a brash, audacious one, but its invocation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 opus is no empty gesture. As a statement of new-generation intent, symbolically reclaiming a national-treasure text to reflect the more diverse reality of contemporary France, it makes its point immediately. The title appears over introductory documentary footage of reveling masses in the wake of France’s 2018 World Cup victory, a more positive demonstration of the patriotic brio that powered the 19th-century tome. It’s the last time you’ll hear the people sing in Ly’s film, which otherwise makes wholly grave references to Hugo’s work: “There are no bad plants or bad men; there are only bad cultivators,” runs a choice onscreen quote.
Viewers may be inclined to disagree after spending some time in the cop car that literally drives Ly’s film through the concrete wilds of Les Bosquets, Montfermeil’s most notorious and crime-ridden social estate: It would take an especially generous judge of character to identify no bad men inside it. Ly’s screenplay, co-written with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti, takes a rookie’s-first-day structure familiar from “Training Day” and countless others of its ilk, introducing a mediating conscience of sorts in the form of Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), a level-headed, by-the-book policeman newly transferred to Les Bosquets from a less fraught precinct.
Though he’s taken off-guard by the volatile nature of everyday life in the area, he’s even less prepared for the extreme corruption of the two Anti-Crime Squad officers he’s assigned to shadow. Chris (played by Manenti, equal parts electrifying and repulsive) is a nakedly racist, short-fused bully, given to harassing or actively assaulting teenagers for sport. His black partner Gwada (compelling model-turned-actor Djebril Zonga) occasionally balks at Chris’ behavior, but recklessly abuses his own power; even in the course of a single day, this close-quarters complicity threatens to infect the horrified Stéphane too.
Ly and editor Flora Volpelière begin proceedings at a surprisingly leisurely but nonetheless engrossing pace, taking nearly an hour to observe and absorb the intricately conflicting power dynamics of the estate, where the shady local mayor Steve Tientcheu enjoys a brittle, mutual look-the-other-way pact with Chris and Gwada, while an assortment of restive gangs — Muslim Brotherhood members, Romany circus workers and, perhaps most powerfully, overlapping factions of seething teenagers — clash and chafe in their shadow. When the debatably named Anti-Crime Squad gets roped into one of these initially minor disputes, tensions on a hot, irritable day boil over to near-riot levels, culminating in a breath-suspending cops-versus-kids standoff that sees one boy hit in the eye by a police flashball. When another kid’s drone camera captures the incident, the stakes, and ensuing chase, are intensified — along with the surging hum of Pink Noise’s effectively minimalist electro score.
Occasionally recalling the more urgent, ragged work of Spike Lee in its feverish, on-the-ground formal energy, “Les Misérables” is aptly galling as a study of everyday power structures tested and exploited to breaking point; its best scenes are combative in the discomfort they raise, prodding viewers to ask if, when and how they would intervene in various ugly displays of unchecked authority. Ly’s film has little in the way of sympathy for the police, yet it’s surprising that the bulk of its action is viewed through their alternately jaded and terrified eyes. We are given far less internal access to the various oppressed groups under their crooked thumb, at least until another June Rebellion of sorts gathers pace. No single resident of Les Bosquets emerges as a character half so vivid and exposed as either good cop or bad cop; rather, the film winds up grouping them in a hurried, imprecise strokes. You might say a negligent social system does the same thing.
That’s a disappointing oversight, since Ly’s debut otherwise bristles auspiciously with life and wit at the fringes of an already frayed society; in collaboration with dynamic d.p. Julien Poupard, Ly shoots his chosen terrain with a brisk but intimate sense of community that can’t be tourist-faked. (Meanwhile, leave it to a gifted docmaker to find a genuinely eerie, narratively integral application for that most overused of currently trendy camera techniques: the serenely drifting drone shot.) Expanded from a César-nominated short film of the same name, “Les Misérables” has been stylishly and efficiently shaped from — per the film’s press notes — over 100 hours of rushes. Perhaps, however, it could use a little more of its literary namesake’s vast, sociable sprawl.