Sleepless Night—a 2011 French thriller about an undercover cop who spends an entire night (natch) at a crime boss’ nightclub trying to save his kidnapped son—is a terrific action flick that makes brilliant use of a simple conceit. Sleepless, its inevitable American remake, is so lazily assembled you’ll wonder if everyone involved was under the impression it was going straight to the movie selections on Delta Airlines. Every line of dialogue feels like a third-rate copy of tough-guy speak (when a cop played by Jamie Foxx volunteers to investigate a robbery he took part in, his partner tells him: “This is either the smartest or dumbest sh** you’ve ever done!”). Almost every performance is completely drained of emotion, with characters just sort of shrugging and mumbling when someone else points a gun in their face or delivers what should be mind-blowing news (at one point, Foxx’s character idly scrolls through a cell phone’s records as his best friend of 20 years is uttering his last words while bleeding out from a gunshot wound—neither man acts like what’s happening is a big deal). The film has the same washed-out color scheme that movies today use as a shorthand to convey seriousness, and the action consists of jittery, handheld camerawork that feels less like an attempt to create a sense of “you are there” tension and more that director Baran bo Odar couldn’t be bothered to compose a well-framed shot.
Sleepless does have one smart idea that could have made for a slight improvement on the original: It changes the setting from a nightclub to a Las Vegas casino, a location that’s gigantic enough for the characters to get lost in and could plausibly contain different settings like a restaurant or a spa. (With Sleepless Night, you just had to roll with the fact that it was apparently taking place in the most elaborate nightclub of all time.) But somehow Sleepless manages to botch this, too, as its casino looks like a cramped, unimpressive set; without a single wide shot to convey the grandeur of this location, we might as well be looking at a warehouse that the production designers spruced up with a few craps tables. Forget about filmmaking chops—how does a modestly budgeted French thriller end up looking vastly more polished than Hollywood product with an A-list star? (And how come this casino is supposedly packed with guests, yet every time the movie needs a fight scene or shoot-out, it conveniently happens in a corner of the building where nobody seems to notice?)
Fine, the plot: Vincent Downs (Jamie Foxx, bored) is an undercover cop pretending to be a dirty cop in order to smoke out corruption within his department. He and his partner (Tip “T.I.” Harris, somnambulant) rip off a drug shipment, stealing a ton of coke. The coke belongs to a casino magnate (Dermot Mulroney, emotionless), who’s planning to sell it to an unhinged gangster (Scoot McNairy, actually trying!), who desperately needs it to replace another shipment of coke he lost. Casino boss has his goons kidnap Downs’ son (Octavius J. Johnson, bored again) to get the coke back. Downs goes to casino with coke, trailed by internal-affairs officer Jennifer Bryant (Michelle Monaghan, kinda awake), who suspects Downs is a dirty cop, not realizing he’s undercover.
It plays out more or less how you’d expect, and more or less how it happened in Sleepless Night. So how was the original film a thousand times better? Sleepless might be just another lousy January release that will be completely forgotten in about two weeks, but its mediocrity feels like an indictment of some larger rot in Hollywood. With a terrific premise and a cast of actors who have been great elsewhere, this should have been an easy win—all the studio needed to do was hire the right director to knock it out of the park. Instead they went with Swiss filmmaker Baran bo Odar, who’s making his Hollywood debut here after helming a few German-language features that got decent reviews. The real problem, the one lurking behind Sleepless, is that any director with ambition these days knows to steer clear of the major studios, where the only reward for success is the opportunity to direct another bland, micromanaged franchise installment. And without this talent pool to draw from, Hollywood can’t even craft a crime thriller with a shred of intensity.