How smart does an action movie have to be to be smarter than a Hollywood action movie? It doesn’t have to be inaccessible. It doesn’t have to be dull either. The quick-firing, quick-witted The Takedown stars Omar Sy and Laurent Lafitte (reprising their roles from 2012’s On the Other Side of the Tracks) and is directed by Louis Leterrier. It’s a buddy cop movie about two former partners reunited in Paris to solve a murder in the French country, discovering a white supremacist terrorist conspiracy along the way. It reminds me of Bad Boys, Rush Hour and Hobbes and Shaw, but it’s slightly more critical of police than the former two and far more grounded than the last one. The Takedown is a very good time: A solid action comedy and a window into how a French director with a lot of American projects can turn eclectic influences into an artistic sensibility with wide-ranging appeal, all while directing actors to beat up Nazis.
If you’re familiar with the genre, you’ll recognize familiar components. Two leading men with complementary/contradictory personalities and skill sets, and a relatively no-nonsense leading lady that one or both guys are romantically interested in. Sy’s Chief Ousmane Diakité is a sharp investigator and a relentless, sometimes reckless, fighter, but he can be squeamish and isn’t smooth. Lafitte’s Lt. Francois Monge is a lonely but successful and self-assured narcissist, meticulous about protocol and folding his clothes, and an incorrigible womanizer. Izïa Higelin plays Alice, the local police officer guiding them around town and helping them with their investigation, with an apparent mutual attraction to Ousmane—while Francois imagines himself to be a magnet.
The movie quickly introduces its characters: Their living conditions, priorities and personalities. We see Ousmane get into a cage fight with a fugitive he aims to arrest, eventually forcing the crowd (at SWAT team gunpoint) to root for the police. It goes from fun—a comedic and well-choreographed mixed martial arts match—to gross quickly, though the aforementioned “La police!” chant does seem intentionally uncomfortable. Francois, on the other hand, has a deflective meeting with a therapist (perhaps department-issued) before sleeping with her. It reminded me of GoldenEye until it’s revealed that rather than being seduced, she was using him—preying on the insecurities that drive him to throw himself at every woman he sees. We’re not reverently following a debonair, seductive cop. Ousmane’s fight goes viral and the National Police’s Criminal Division wants to make him their public face to improve PR, while Francois gets roasted by his colleagues and subordinates after asking who gave his therapist so much critical ammunition about his personality.
With the deft writing providing characterizations, we’re off. Francois finds half of a corpse while picking his parents up from the train station. Ousmane meets him there with his partner, they exchange verbal jabs, then head their separate ways, only to be reunited in the provinces after Francois gets his wealthy parents to pull some strings. Then they’re introduced to provincial patriotism, solve the murder, uncover a deeper conspiracy and prevent its execution. Along the way, Ousmane and Francois bicker and joke with one another, fight other people, meet a racist mayor (Dimitri Storoge), rouse a hornet’s nest of white supremacists at a private security company, and have no less than three exhilarating chase sequences. There’s slightly less gunfighting than you might expect, and also more nude bottom halves of a bisected man.
While it’s nowhere near as diverse as, say, the Fast and the Furious franchise, The Takedown’s perspective on race is somewhere between Rush Hour and 48 Hours. The department tries to make Ousmane their poster boy, a plot point I figured would hang annoyingly in the film’s foreground. Instead, it simply contributes to the overall theme confronting racism and white supremacy. Ousmane quashes the idea, as he puts it, to “play the nice Black cop to cover up the department’s mistakes,” in the meeting where it’s introduced. I don’t have firsthand knowledge of French racial politics, so it’s insightful to see French cinema reflect similar problems to those in the U.S., and those I’ve seen in documentaries like Les Bleus (also on Netflix). There’s an entrenched white ruling class, some of whom are ideologically committed to blaming minorities and social movements for the country’s problems, and using that ideology to convince people with similar identities to ignore their class interests and hurt people that look different than them.
While the problems aren’t as foreign as the language, it is nearly impossible for me to imagine a big-budget movie coming out in American cinemas about white supremacists being the bad guys (much less them infiltrating every level of government). Our films are seemingly incapable of naming our villains in that way. The Fast and Furious and Mission: Impossible movies tend to be about rogue technocratic iconoclasts. In them, real-world politics are only vaguely decipherable. Instead, the constant threat is world catastrophe—the embodied concept of “danger.” Nazis or their organizational/spiritual descendants (HYDRA) have been the villains in multiple Marvel movies, but the MCU struggles, like the Call of Duty games, to be explicit about the evil of Nazi ideology. They’re just stock bad guys. The Takedown spells fascism out in a couple of sentences. They use “law and order” and “patriotism” as dog whistle phrases to invoke marginalizing racial minorities and queer people and expelling immigrants. They want to push society backwards. Their ideal version of France is made up of patriotic clichés, an imagined yesteryear that never really existed.
It is compelling to experience an action film, an action comedy moreover, with big special effects—and some surprisingly explicit gore that is played for both shock and laughs—that contends with these weighty issues. It doesn’t have a profound statement, but even a clear one is exciting. Still, despite the fact that the film is brave enough to name and shame white supremacists, it’s not necessarily subversive. It still works according to a familiar plot structure that broadly parallels the American flavor of the genre (and lacks development for Alice, though that plays into the plot).
The Takedown marks a fruitful continuing collaboration between Sy and Leterrier, who directed the first three episodes of Sy’s successful Netflix series Lupin and is set to replace Justin Lin as the director of Fast X. It could be that I’m just fawning because I had a good time and The Takedown wasn’t completely gutless, but I enjoyed the film a lot. It reminds me of the first time I saw a blockbuster try to have themes or resemble a more ambitious genre. I hope it isn’t completely the case that the U.S. moviemaking industry is so bereft of artistic intent in its mass market pictures that a comedy with explosions talking about something obvious and relevant is overwhelmingly impressive. It doesn’t completely reinvent the buddy cop formula, it just centralizes some of the important themes that made the genre vibrant in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It includes some great chase sequences, leaning enough on practical effects that the rear projection and CGI blend well. Leterrier and screenwriter Stéphane Kazandjian balance Sy and Lafitte’s comedic chemistry with serious themes, developing jokes for all levels of sophistication, and expressing why Nazis are both seriously dangerous and idiotically silly. The Takedown isn’t a radical or revolutionary movie (it is still about good-guy cops), but it’s refreshing relative to its genre contemporaries. Oh, and watch it in French with English subtitles, which feels a lot more natural than the English dub.
Director: Louis Leterrier
Writer: Stéphane Kazandjian
Starring: Omar Sy, Laurent Lafitte, Izïa Higelin
Release Date: May 6, 2022 (Netflix)
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.