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The Belgian / French thriller SLEEPLESS NIGHT (BLANCHE NUIT in France) has been called “DIE HARD in a nightclub,” and with good reason. The bulk of the film takes place in and around a nightclub in a game of cat-and-mouse involving a bag of drugs, our crooked-cop hero, his kidnapped son, two sets of gangsters, and several cops of varying allegiances.

While “Die Hard in a nightclub” is a convenient shorthand for understanding the broad outlines of SLEEPLESS NIGHT, it doesn’t tell the full story. DIE HARD is a classic, but it is also very Hollywood: an everyman cowboy hero, a moustache-twirling villain, and action set pieces occasionally punctuated by a bare minimum of broad-strokes character development. SLEEPLESS NIGHT is a bit more nuanced, and owes more to the gritty cop dramas of the 70s. The colors are desaturated, the police are corrupt, and this world feels raw and realistically dangerous. Almost no character is sympathetic, including the protagonist and about a half-dozen villains in varying shades of gray. And instead of a set piece here or there, in SLEEPLESS NIGHT both the action and the tension continuously build, with a few breaks to move the plot forward, up to the frenzied climax.

The plot is fairly simple. Vincent (Tomer Sisley) and his partner put on balaclavas, and using machine guns they hijack a car transporting several kilos of drugs. Things don’t go as planned, Vincent is stabbed and one of the drug couriers is shot. Before long we find out that Vincent and his partner aren’t just run of the mill thugs, they are also cops. The plot thickens when the local mob boss deduces who pulled the heist and kidnaps Vincent’s son to get him to hand over the drugs. Vincent has to deliver the drugs to the boss in the nightclub, where his son is being held, but for insurance he stashes the bag in the ceiling above the men’s room. The only problem is, another cop who is following him takes the drugs. She calls in her superior, an internal affairs type who may or may not be on the up-and-up. Meanwhile even more gangsters visit, looking for their drugs. Wild chases, brutal fistfights, and lethal shootouts ensue as the merchandise continuously changes hands, and the action weaves between the dance floor, back rooms, a pool hall, lounge, restaurant, kitchen, and parking lot.

There’s plenty of action, but just as much of the fun is the game of hide-and-seek between all the players. The action is well planned and executed, but it isn’t always over the top. Part of the trick is that the violence has to be somewhat covert so as not to cause a panic in the club, although that convention is ignored as much as it is followed.

SLEEPLESS NIGHT is a hell of a lot of fun, and once the action starts, it never slows down. It isn’t a perfect film -- the characters are perhaps a bit too unsympathetic, and the fact that some are cardboard cutouts, or lack much screen time, means that it can be hard to understand everyone’s motivations. The ending is apt and dramatic, although it misses an opportunity for some of the characters to come together to confront each other in a final showdown and better flesh out their murky relationship to one another. Still, I’m not sure most of these traits really are faults. What makes SLEEPLESS NIGHT so compelling is its valuing of untidy verisimilitude over Hollywood over-polishing. You can never quite get a handle on the sketchy characters, and the path from A to B doesn’t always take the most predictable route. This results in a kind of tension that serves the film well.

After successful showings at TIFF’s Midnight Madness and Fantastic Fest, producer Roy Lee and Warner Brothers bought the remake rights to SLEEPLESS NIGHT. That’s a smart move. Lee has successfully pulled this off before with THE DEPARTED, and he’s trying again with the OLDBOY remake. American audiences won’t go see an action movie with subtitles or without known stars, and the sensibilities in SLEEPLESS NIGHT may be a bit too European for mainstream American audiences. Still, if you get a chance to see it, it is well worth checking out. It is currently playing the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

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