Sentinelle isn’t Leclercq’s best work, but it’s a gritty, nuts-and-bolts actioner in its own right.
Netflix has a tendency to push a few high-profile titles every year (mostly prestige awards-bait like Mank and Hillbilly Elegy) while leaving the rest of its massive offerings to battle it out for viewers’ attention. It’s a kind of bizarre Darwinian experiment, presumably less a matter of willful neglect than a case of its much-vaunted algorithm creating a closed loop of “you might like” suggestions that (counterintuitively) gets smaller the more refined it gets. Case in point, there’s a slew of French action flicks languishing in relative obscurity just waiting to be discovered by DTV fans. The best of them, like Guillaume Pierret’s Lost Bullet and Julien Leclercq’s The Crew and Earth and Blood, are the kind of unpretentious, nuts-and-bolts genre offerings that Hollywood just doesn’t bother to make anymore. Even something like Olivier Marchal’s Rogue City, a grab bag of corrupt cop clichés, has a shockingly nihilistic ending that a more prestigious mainstream film wouldn’t dare emulate.
Leclercq’s newest film, Sentinelle, continues his winning streak, although it’s the weakest of his most recent projects. The Crew could be described as a shoestring version of Mann’s epochal Heat, while Earth and Blood resembles one of Liam Neeson’s many post-Taken geriatric thrillers, except good. Sentinelle riffs on Luc Besson’s obsession with lithe, lanky women who are also sexy assassins or otherwise good at killing. The heroine here is former Bond girl (and veteran of multiple Europacorp productions) Olga Kurylenko, playing Klara, a soldier who’s returned from active duty in the Middle East with some gnarly PTSD and an opioid addiction. Relegated to a thankless job patrolling the streets of Paris (part of the military’s anti-terrorist Sentinel program), she reconnects with her mom and younger sister Tania (Marilyn Lima) while scoring drugs off the street in her spare time. After a night of clubbing, Tania disappears with some shady Russian men. The sister turns up the next morning in a coma, the victim of a brutal sexual assault (not shown onscreen, thankfully). When the police tell Klara that the men from the club are Russian diplomats, and therefore protected by international immunity laws, she takes matters into her own hands and begins tracking down the culprits herself.
It’s a familiar scenario, but like most DTV projects, the pleasures are all in the execution. Leclercq typically brings his films in under 80 minutes, give or take an end credits sequence, and has a remarkable capacity for cramming a lot of narrative meat into a very brief runtime. There’s a clarity to his best work that belies their simplistic frameworks, a sense that he is showing you only the most important things you need to know about each character and plot beat before moving on. Scenes end abruptly, but never before making their point, and it all reflects a refreshingly lean, laser-like focus. Leclercq also has a great eye for quick, brutal bursts of violence. Here, Kurylenko engages in two different brawls that are easily the best fight scenes so far this year, the first in a men’s bathroom where she attacks a suspect and then fends off his bodyguards, and then again when she finds a hitman trying to kill her sister before she can identify the men who assaulted her. These are full-bodied fights, as Kurylenko uses her knees and elbows to bring down men much larger than herself. It’s not fancy choreography, but down-and-dirty street fighting that leaves bruises and emphasizes the momentum it takes to hurl a body against a wall or through glass. It looks painful. Honestly, Sentinelle could have used at least one more no-holds-barred action scene, as the middle of the film drags a bit, mired in Klara’s struggle with addiction. But it rallies with a solid ending, as she lays siege to a house full of henchmen and enacts her revenge. There’s a lot to like here, if you’re willing to explore a labyrinthine, sometimes unwelcoming platform to find it.
You can currently stream Julien Leclercq’s Sentinelle on Netflix.