Jack Thorne, the creator and co-scripter of Sundance’s The Last Panthers, which originally premiered in France via Canal, is known for working on shows about growing up, tracing the acts that help form our psychology, perspective, and, ultimately, what kind of adults we become. His very best work was on This is England, Shane Meadows‘ tough-minded TV spin-off of his own, excellent film of the same name; Thorne co-wrote the ’90, ’88, and ’86 installments of the series alongside Meadows. So, it’s not surprising that when The Last Panthers indulges a few flashbacks to characters’ childhood, they offer key, insightful moments to better understand the adults that are embroiled in the violent, tumultuous aftermath of the Marseilles-set diamond heist that opens this enthralling six-episode crime procedural.
The immediacy of the robbery starts the series off with a big kick, stylishly shot and cut with breathless efficiency that tips its hat to Michael Mann‘s catalog. It’s the accidental killing of a young girl during the getaway, however, that not only causes Interpol and the Marseilles police to get tangled up together but also slips the proverbial noose around the necks of Milan (Goran Bogdan), a longtime member of the titular gang of thieves, and the two robbers that helped him pull off the Marseilles job. One of the aforementioned flashbacks shows a young Milan in Serbia, seemingly alone in the world save for his young brother, getting recruited by a local crime organization, who take him in and offer him money. With only a handful of these scenes, Thorne and his writers summon up a tragic truth about being young, out-of-place, and poor in a place that is not your home: crime and starvation become your only options, and once you take up the former as a career, there’s rarely a non-lethal way of resigning from the job.
The show offers a counterweight to Milan in Tahar Rahim‘s Khalil, a French-Algerian police officer assigned to work the robbery and the murder. Khalil’s childhood also involved doing work and covering up for a local crime syndicate, even when one of his young friends is shot in the head; though he eventually gets on the right path, the tactics and psychology of a criminal life still informs how he goes about capturing criminals. Rahim, who has quickly become one of France’s great character actors, uses little more than his delivery and physicality to hint at his character’s inner turmoil over being able to think like criminals in order to catch them, but also knowing this ability often comes at the price of a life. One of the series’ best sequences involves Khalil pressing an elderly couple to disclose how involved they are with the gang in their tenement, using a tricky maneuver that helps him get information but puts the couple in a potentially fatal situation.
Class is a critical element to the dramatic thrust of The Last Panthers, and there is a sense that by capturing the robber hidden in his childhood home, Khalil hopes to rid himself of his criminal instincts and prove that the tenement is not exclusively a hotbed of thievery and murder. It’s not surprising,then, that he gets into a dispute early on with Samantha Morton‘s Naomi, an insurance adjuster working with Interpol and her manipulative boss (John Hurt), as she is clearly more interested in the robbery of the diamonds than the murder of the young girl. The differences between the two characters and their pursuits is expressed in familiar terms of narrative mechanics: he works the streets and busts down doors with the S.W.A.T. team to find a witness, while she pays informants and goes over reels and reels of security camera footage to get a clue. That is not to say, however, that Naomi is without her own scars, as its incrementally unveiled that she has a lacerating past with Serbia from her time working with the UN in the 1990s.
Just as Naomi must face the ghosts of a traumatic occurrence, and Khalil must once again return to the dark place where the most unsavory parts of his persona were forged, Milan must begin working with his old colleague and current bossman, Zlatko (Igor Bencina), once again, due largely to medical expenses brought on by his young brother’s sickness. It’s a familiar group of tropes, and the entire structure of these interweaving stories is reminiscent of more than a few crime films, but the whole production is pulled off with such assuredness and suave style that the fact that this is all a retread when you get right down to it doesn’t matter when you’re in the middle of the action. The sense of character development and the political undertones of each personality’s struggle add just the right about of detail and dimension to the story, as does the moody, magnificent score by Clark and DP Laurent Tangy‘s gorgeous, polished cinematography. With so much talent at hand, from the performances to the direction to the editing, The Last Panthers ends up making the familiar feel fresh, allowing the equally thrilling and melancholic subject matter to unfurl with surprising effectiveness.
★★★★ Very Good – Damn Fine Television
The Last Panthers premieres Wednesday, April 13th at 10 p.m. EST on Sundance TV