Fantastic Fest Review: Sleepless Night


[For the next few weeks Flixist will be covering Fantastic Fest 2011. We’ll be bringing you news, reviews, interviews and other pieces of awesome so make sure to come back and check out all the festival has to offer here.]

I used to know this guy who loved to talk about his screenplay. He would ask me if I wanted to work with him and help him film it, as if I was capable of doing anything more than making indie music videos about two pugs in love (I was 13) — and, NO, I am not sharing the link to that video — in actuality, he had less of a screenplay and more of a mishmash of heist movie clichés wrapped around Quentin Tarantino-esque tough guys who are in search of a bag of cash and a personality.

I can’t remember this guy’s name or even know what he is up to these days. For all I know, Sleepless Night may have been the film he was writing all those years ago. People can become French, right?

Sleepless Night is kind of like a silly, B-action film pretending to be a French art film (or vice-versa). You have all the bravado of a Jason Statham vehicle with half the action set pieces, and all the tough-guy nonsense of a Tarantino film with none of the personality or clever writing. Now, imagine all this being filmed with your eight-year-old niece manning the camera, shaking it every which way. Sleepless Night is a bizarre case of action cinema posturing as something more important and coming close to failing at both the drama and action, as a result. Ironically, the film is worth watching for two intense fights and not much else.

The film opens with Vincent (Tomer Sisley) stealing a bag of cocaine from a drug courier. The drug heist goes awry, with Vincent receiving a stab wound. Even worse, one of the drug couriers runs off after getting a look at Vincent’s face. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that Vincent is a police lieutenant. But, hey, at least he got the drugs!

Soon after, we see a couple shaky-cam scenes of people running, a drug lord slamming his fist on a table, and the uptight boss who fixes his tie as classical music plays in his luxurious car. It’s the kind of cliches that an embarrassingly operatic rap music video would use in the mid-90s (see R. Kelly’s “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)”). The lines that accompany each cliche would be even more grating if heard in English, I imagine.

Soon enough, we arrive at the main conflict: Vincent has a bag of drugs that the local drug lord wants, and the local drug lord has Vincent’s son held at gunpoint at his nightclub. Vincent must make the exchange by the end of the night, but he has a hell of a time keeping his eyes on the bag of cocaine. Other side characters are sloppily introduced and forgotten, but the main focus is Vincent running through the club on the hunt for dem drugz. He is constantly outgunned and on the run, which gives the film potential for many fight scenes. Instead, we get about two-and-a-half.

Half-way through the film there is an epic kitchen fight scene that has all the close-combat brutal realism of the Bourne films mixed with the ridiculousness of a ’90s action flick. Equally entertaining is a gunfight at the end, where Vincent uses the thick iron doors that line a narrow hall for cover. These scenes are the only time when all the film’s pretensions are dropped for some good ‘ole action fun. In these passing minutes, the film’s slapdash direction and cinematography can be temporarily overlooked.

It’s been a while since I saw a digital film that looks as bad as Sleepless Night. The lighting is mostly to blame but the care put into the camera work is almost non-existent. Every scene looks like it was shot with the ISO on auto, resulting poorly lit and overexposed areas of the screen. It’s not a very pretty film to look at, even when you don’t factor in the lazy camerawork that feels as if it were done with very little direction. While Paul Greengrass creates sandboxes that the cameraman can artfully explore, Sleepless Night feels like an drunken idiot ran around with a webcam strapped to his chest.

There is something kind of adorable about Sleepless Night. It’s as if behind all its pretensions, it just really wants to be Sudden Death or something. I just wish they went all the way with it. Here’s hoping that the American remake acknowledges how thin and cliche the film’s plot is and decides to build a great action film around the original’s premise. That’s probably the most we can hope for, in any case. The French original will be remembered as a fast-paced, problematic action film with some fight scenes that inspired something greater. Well, ideally speaking.