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Review: Combustible 'Les Misérables' shows a city ready to explode

There's no singing or dancing in this urgent portrait of modern Paris

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

This ain't no musical. 

Director Ladj Ly's "Les Misérables" is a stark, angry portrait of a modern Paris ready to burst at the seams. It takes a look at racial and class structure from within and finds tension on all sides. In this system of oppression, everyone loses. 

Djibril Zonga, Alexis Manenti and Damien Bonnard in "Les Misérables."

Ly, who shares screenwriting duties with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti, hones in on the three police officers who are members of an anti-crime group they call the SCU, or the "Smack Combat Unit." 

Chris (Alexis Manenti) is the leader of the crew, harassing teenage girls on the street at will and strutting around like a cowboy. His partner is Gwada (Djibril Zonga), a product of the projects they police, who mostly goes along with Chris' program. Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) is the new recruit, getting hazed on his first day (his colleagues call him "Greaser," much to his dismay) while getting an on-the-job education on the hierarchy of the streets. 

When a lion cub is lifted from a local circus — this powder keg is so ready to blow, anything can set it off — the SCU shakes down the local kids, gangs, ex-cons and assorted other affiliates of the Paris underclass. The cub is found in the possession of a child thanks to a helping hand from social media, and when Gwada hits him with a flash-ball round to the head (and is captured on film by a drone hovering above), poof, ignition. 

Ly's approach likens "Les Misérables" to a Parisian version of "The Wire," in the way that it presents various individuals from different walks of life and shows the role they play on the chess board that is the city. It's an urgent portrait that captures a much different Paris than the original 1862 novel, but its themes remain. Victor Hugo would be proud.

'Les Misérables' 


Not rated: Violence, language

Running time: 102 minutes