'The Last Panthers': TV Review

The Last Panthers - Season 1, Episode 2 -H 2016
Courtesy of Stephane Remael/Sky UK Ltd
Not pretty, but pretty great.

This complicated but intriguing international crime series to air on SundanceTV features strong writing, an excellent cast and vivid directing.

One of the great joys in discovering foreign television series of high quality is that they provide a kind of travelogue that takes you out of the familiar confines of New York, Los Angeles or, for that matter, anywhere in Canada that masquerades as an American city.

In the gripping, smartly written, dark and beautifully directed new French series The Last Panthers, which premieres tonight on Sundance, the story goes from France to Hungary, Serbia and London, and at no time do you get much chance to look at the grandeur and wish you were on vacation. Because The Last Panthers has no time for many easily identifiable landmarks of either France or England, preferring nondescript neighborhoods, dark streets under gray skies you can't ever remember walking down, the forgotten bleakness of the Balkans and any other muddy patch of desolation its director, Johan Renck (Breaking Bad, Halt and Catch Fire, Bloodline), can point his camera toward. (Renck also shot recent David Bowie videos including "Blackstar," which partly serves as the title music to The Last Panthers.)

But European beauty be damned. Happy Valley on Netflix isn't much of a travelogue either and it's one of the best series of 2016. You can sense that the only thing holding back Last Panthers is the purposefully difficult, Byzantine structure from writer Jack Thorne, who worked in conjunction with French journalist Jerome Pierrat to create a story (actually multiple stories) with both gravitas and integrity and originality. If you like a challenge — and a thrilling plot — this is a series that will deliver, working in three languages (French, English and Serbian), creating an intimate story of individual characters but never ignoring the bigger picture of a changing Europe (guns and violence in France, political corruption and war wounds in Serbia).

All of this while shaking up the tired cop drama by rather boldly and creatively (and, with its intent, cynically) making it more about offsetting insurance monies than catching killers or creating change. More than anything, this approach is what makes Last Panthers fascinating and fresh.

The series jumping-off point is the very real group of Balkan diamond thieves (and mob) called the Pink Panthers, who worked in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro. They pulled off heists everywhere and got their moniker from Interpol. In theory, most of the major players are behind bars now and the group is considered dormant, though its panther tattoo on the chest of its members still strikes fear. Thorne (This Is England, Skins) and Pierrat seize on this real history to start their plotting. They have cobbled together a story that feels partly like a movie, partly like a journalistic docudrama and it's forever intriguing — particularly for its decision to emphasize Samantha Morton and John Hurt as operatives from a British insurance company specializing in stolen diamonds over, say, a standard cop whodunit.

Last Panthers opens with a jewel heist orchestrated by Milan (Goran Bogdan) in Marseille, France (where a real-life epidemic of gun trafficking and violence has turned the area into a particular problem for the French). Milan is only doing it to get money to help his younger brother get an operation on his heart (both were immigrants to Serbia, and Milan was taken in by a kingpin in the Pink Panthers). But the getaway is botched by one of the other hired thieves who accidentally shoots a young girl in Marseille and now the diamonds are considered tainted and nobody will buy them.

Naomi (Morton) is sent in by her boss, Tom (Hurt), to retrieve the diamonds, opening up a fascinating process where money (often in the form of a reward but also other methods) buys a successful return of the goods, but doesn't solve the crime, which of course annoys the local police, in this case French detective Khalil (Tahar Rahim), the son of Algerian immigrants who was raised in the Marseilles ghetto housing complex where the guns used to commit the heist were obtained.

The series clearly has a lot of big issues on its mind and gets there (or at least attempts to) through the stories of Naomi, who was a U.N. soldier patrolling Serbia back in the day and is struggling to put the memories behind her; Milan, who doesn't really want to stay connected to the Pink Panthers, or crime, really — he just wants to help his brother; and Khalil, who has his own brother on the wrong side of the law (it could have just as easily been him).

Between Thorne's writing, the acting of a stellar cast (and, honestly, Hurt is riveting even when you want him to have more lines or a bigger role) and Renck's directing (he shot all six episodes), The Last Panthers becomes something truly special even if, at times, it seems more complex than it needs to be. If you hang in there through three languages, multiple cities and European cultural and political issues, the payoff is worth it as the strands come together.

You may not book your next trip to Belgrade or Marseille, but you won't forget the visuals in this crime travelogue, either. And that's why you should watch.

Cast: Samantha Morton, John Hurt, Goran Bogdan, Tahar Rahim
Created and written by: Jack Thorne
Co-created by: Jerome Pieratt
Directed by: Johan Renck
Airs: Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Sundance)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine