A Specialist in Short and Lethal Movie Thrillers Jumps to TV
Mehdi, the cool, collected thief at the heart of the French Netflix series “Ganglands,” is haunted by his brother’s death. Guilt drives Mehdi’s decisions as he becomes embroiled in a violent dispute among rival drug traffickers.
And yet we know nothing about that lost sibling. The show doesn’t dwell on how he died. There are no convenient explanations or evocative flashbacks.
“We did write those scenes, but we thought we shouldn’t underestimate viewers,” said Julien Leclercq, the series’s director and co-creator, speaking in French on a recent video call from Paris. “It’s not a bad thing to leave a back story to the imagination, to not always explain.”
And this is why his movies have one of the lowest B.M.I.s in the action business: He cuts the flab. Since his debut, the 2007 sci-fi thriller “Chrysalis” (running time: 1 hour 34 minutes), he has built a reputation as a director of efficient, no-nonsense rides. Even when he lands international names, like Jean-Claude Van Damme in the 2019 film “The Bouncer” (also 1:34) or Olga Kurylenko in the 2021 Netflix film “Sentinelle” (good to go at 1:20), Leclercq resists the temptation to give them more dialogue, more exposition or more fights.
The question was, could Leclercq’s formula work across the four and a half hours of “Ganglands,” which premiered on Netflix last week?
Sami Bouajila, whose turn as Mehdi in the series was his fourth outing with the director, didn’t need convincing.
“It was love at first sight — we were on the same wavelength, we had the same approach,” said Bouajila, a popular big-screen leading man in France whose performance in the film “A Son” earned him the 2021 César Award for best actor.
“We both love these silent, upstanding characters, a little rough around the edges, and I love his aesthetics,” he added. “Julien’s trademark is his artistic direction — there’s a rhythm, there’s a sound, and there’s silence. There are moods and feelings but the characters have a hard time expressing them, so they act upon them.”
This “show, don’t tell” approach may be one reason Leclercq’s austere style, somewhere between Jean-Pierre Melville and Clint Eastwood, needs little translation: There are few subtitles to discourage those allergic to them. His films have performed so well internationally for Netflix that the company, which had historically only licensed Leclercq’s movies for streaming, signed on as the primary distributor for his 2020 feature, “Earth and Blood” (1:20).
Leclercq’s work can feel like a single locomotive speeding ahead on straight rails — the entire plot of “Earth and Blood” boils down to an extended showdown between a sawmill owner and dealers looking for a stolen stash. With its expanded parameters, however, the “Ganglands” engine can pull a few more cars.
As usual, the core of the story is simple: Shaïnez (Sofia Lesaffre) is abducted after she and her girlfriend, Liana (Tracy Gotoas), impulsively steal drugs from the wrong guy, and only Shaïnez’s uncle, Mehdi, can help set her free. But now there is room for the human foibles and interpersonal dynamics — and even hints at back stories — that Leclercq usually dispenses with.
“We quickly latched on the idea of a family tragedy, very much in a Greek tragedy mold, which is what links all the characters,” said Hamid Hlioua the show’s co-creator and co-writer, adding that adding this angle was also a way to avoid simply diluting a movie. “We wanted to focus on tension, action and family.”
“Ganglands” certainly operates on a larger scale than is typical for Leclercq. But Netflix trusted that he could be just as efficient over six episodes instead of tightly coiled in an hour and a half, and approached him with the idea. The director was interested in the challenge.
“I think all filmmakers today have fantasies of tackling a series,” said Leclercq, 42, a burly, loquacious man sporting tattooed knuckles. “For viewers, they are really exciting. I’ve watched ‘True Detective’ five times, ‘Breaking Bad’ three times.”
Still, Leclercq and Hlioua were conscious that bloat would be a constant threat. “Very often when there are eight episodes you feel that you could get rid of one or two,” Hlioua said. “So we wanted to grab the viewer from the start and not let go until the last episode.”
In French, the series has the same title, “Braqueurs,” as a Leclercq movie from 2015, known in the United States as “The Crew” (1:21). In both, Bouajila, 55, plays the stone-faced, charismatic leader of a thieving ring, but they are not the same characters and the story lines are unrelated.
“We tried to amplify every aspect,” Leclercq said. “‘The Crew’ was set in a Parisian suburb and involved kilos of coke. Now we’re in Brussels and in the port of Antwerp, which is a hub for drugs coming from South America, and we’re not dealing with kilos anymore, but with tons. The bad guys are more powerful.”
In his feature work, keeping the productions lean has been a key to maintaining the crispness of his pacing and aesthetic. He recalled shuddering when Van Damme turned up with a whole team in tow for Leclercq’s 2019 film “The Bouncer.”
“I said to myself — and he knows that, I told him — that he was going to be a pain in the butt, his world was going to be a pain in the butt, his entourage was going to be a pain in the butt, and I could mess up the movie if he doesn’t listen to me,” Leclercq said.
He took Van Damme aside and asked him to let go of all those showbiz accouterments; it worked.
“In the middle of the shoot he told me, ‘I’ve learned to love making movies again — I was a star, now I want to be an actor,’ ” Leclercq said. “That was the greatest compliment he could have given me.” (Van Damme is, indeed, extraordinary.)
Leclercq’s attitude toward celebrity entourages hasn’t changed. But the fact that there was room for some occasional chitchat in the script allowed for some humor — absent from Leclercq’s features, perhaps because it eats up precious seconds. This is particularly obvious in the scenes between Mehdi and Liana, a rookie criminal who is three decades his junior and as chatty as he is taciturn.
“I’m a big fan of the Luc Besson movie ‘Léon: The Professional,’ so we dreamed about a duo like that, with a generational clash, a culture clash,” Leclercq said.
It helped that the real-life relationship between Bouajila and Gotoas reflected a similar dynamic, minus bullets.
“I’m at the start of my career, he’s been around for 30 years or something,” Gotoas said. “Liana is learning, and I was, too: I’d be checking out how he’d position himself with respect to the camera, how he modulated his performance.”
For his next project, Leclercq is stretching once more by leaving behind the shootouts that have served him so well. He is in preproduction on a biopic of the French Formula 1 champion Alain Prost, with a focus on his rivalry with Ayrton Senna in the 1980s and early ’90s.
Cars are one of Leclercq’s great passions, he explained. If “Ganglands” is renewed, perhaps he can make room for a few chases.