This is not your father's Pink Panther. Boasting film-caliber production values, The Last Panthers is a globetrotting mini-series designed to appeal to discerning viewers looking for something a bit intellectual. In other words, it's a perfect fit for SundanceTV, home of critically acclaimed mini-series like Top of the Lake and The Honorable Woman. As with those imports, The Last Panthers is a complex, character-driven thriller fronted by a great actress, the underrated Samantha Morton (In America, Minority Report). And if that isn't reason enough to watch, Morton is joined by an excellent ensemble that includes Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) and the legendary John Hurt.
Given how the premiere essentially sets the table for the remaining five episodes, it's too soon to know if The Last Panthers will succeed — but it's certainly off to an intriguing start. The first episode quickly grabs attention with an expertly directed, eight-minute, nearly dialogue-free jewelry heist in Marseille, a city that John Hurt's character will later refer to as "Gateway to Africa, Asshole to France." Three men, led by the stoic Milan Celik (Goran Bogdan), break into a bank in a highly coordinated attack. Even though the manager triggers the alarm, the men move precisely — they don't even speak, instead using notes to communicate — as they find a specific box in the vault and retrieve diamonds worth 15 million Euros. Milan also grabs a watch on his way out, and one of his accomplices pours pink paint all over the manager.
Okay, time for a brief history lesson. The Pink Panthers were a network of jewel thieves, comprised most of ex-Yugoslavs, who became notorious in the mid-’90s. They were given the name because of the Peter Sellers movie, of course, but their crimes were no joke: The Panthers were responsible for over $500 million in robberies across Europe, and were reportedly active as recently as 2008, with arrests still taking place. The Last Panthers is a fictional take on this group.
Back to the show. Milan and his two partners — Borisav and Rajko — escape with an impressive display of force, trapping the cops between two walls of flame as they flee in different directions. Milan drops the diamonds off with a female contact and then gets to a safe house, but Rajko gets shot and ends up in a dumpster to hide. Borisav makes out even worse, shooting at the cops chasing him and hitting a 6-year-old girl. Meanwhile, the diamonds get handed off to a man who looks like a Bond villain. He calls another party before tying the diamonds to a string, which is also tied to his fake tooth, and swallowing them. Better than a bike messenger, I guess.
We're introduced to Naomi Franckom (Morton), the British loss agent sent by the insurance company to retrieve the diamonds and get to the bottom of the heist. She meets Kahlil Rachedi (Rahim), the head investigator in Marseilles, and the two immediately clash. As the investigation ramps up, the diamond-swallowing Bond villain, whom we now know is named Drago, gets the bad news: The death of a child means the heat is now too much to handle, so the deal is off. What will he do with a throat full of jewelry?
Meanwhile, Naomi meets up with her boss, Tom Kendle (Hurt). He stresses the urgency of getting back the goods. We get a bit of background about what they know — which they're clearly not sharing with Interpol or Kahlil. The robbers are Eastern European. They're fast and well-prepared. It must be "the Pink." Tom expresses a bit of admiration for them. "They have class. They have a code. […] If the Panthers are back, then I need my diamond specialist to be capable of tracking them." This means that Naomi will have to go to Belgrade, a destination that brings back harsh memories for her. She has a past in Belgrade.
Milan and Borisav meet up with Drago, who nearly drops the diamonds down the drain when they knock on the door. He gives them the bad news about the deal. Borisav is pissed. They'll have to find another buyer.
Meanwhile, the insurance company has put out pictures of the robbers with a €300,000 reward, which makes Kahlil none too happy. They're putting evidence out there before they even give it to the French police; it's totally screwing up the investigation. While the insurance people throw money around to fix the problem, the cops are stuck doing the grunt work — a disparity further emphasized by scenes of Kahlil in a small apartment, sleeping on a couch. While Naomi chases the physical diamonds, Kahlil thinks the right move is tracking down the guns used by the robbers. Find the supplier, and maybe he'll give up the leader of the gang.
Drago and his buddies think they have a buyer in a gypsy community in Ujmajor, Hungary. They meet with a burly man who walks them around, surrounded by a posse of dangerous looking people. They surround the trio, demanding to see a gem. Drago shows him and the buyer offers €200,000 for the whole batch. It's a fraction of what they're worth, but that's what collateral damage does to a price. When Drago balks, they make them strip to see if they have the rest of the jewels, revealing the panther tattoo on Milan's chest. It means something, even in Hungary. As Milan says, "I am someone who will be missed." Some criminals are so connected, they can't be killed. But if Milan is that powerful, why can't he move the stolen goods?
Our two leads — Naomi and Milan — are both descending on Belgrade. Amid flashbacks that reveal Naomi's deadly U.N. trip to the war-torn region, Milan meets with a man named Jani in a cemetery. We learn that Milan was once nicknamed "The Animal," but that means nothing now. They laugh him off and refuse to take him to their leader, Zlatko Mladic (Igor Bencina).
It turns out that Milan has some flashbacks of his own. As Naomi remembers glimpses of gunfire in Belgrade, we see a young Milan (Ismir Gagula) steal something from someone in a market. When he gets caught, his target is impressed by his "balls," even after he spits in his face. He gives him the name Animal. Was this how Milan was inducted into the Panthers? We see him call his old benefactor — a man referred to as Papa — to pull some strings.
Back to Kahlil, who's driving, smoking, brooding. You know, the usual French Cop Things. Like Milan, he has to go back to some old connections, meeting with a contact who may know something about the guns. The contact is surprised he's there, and the music deftly conveys a deep, fractured relationship between them. The man doesn't know anything about the guns and wouldn't tell Kahlil if he did. He wanted something more personal; he's tired of being used.
Milan arrives at home, looking for his mentally handicapped brother, and he runs into Zlatko, who got the order from Papa to help with the diamonds. He wants to show him something first. They spy on Naomi. They know she's looking for him. We learn that Milan was just doing the heist because "Adnan needs a new heart." He's a noble diamond thief. Zlatko will help him, but "Papa needs some things done." They'll help Milan if he helps them. And first, they need to do something about Naomi.
Realizing it may be their best offer, Drago actually calls Naomi looking for the €300,000 reward. After all, it's 50 percent more than they're being offered in the streets. As Kahlil gets closer to the guns, Naomi sets the meeting with Drago.
As she later heads down a dark Belgrade street, though, she finds Drago dead in the driver seat. Borislav hits her over the head and drags her off into an alley. They're going to just shoot her and go, right? Not so fast. Milan shoots Borislav and Jani, then stomps in Jani's face when bullets don't finish the job. He pulls the diamonds out from Drago's esophagus and walks over to Naomi: "It is you." Their paths have crossed before. As Milan covers up the murders, then meets with the bosses in an empty soccer stadium, where he tells them that Borislav killed Jani, which forced him to kill Borislav. He's got the diamonds and the fancy watch to show he's still legit.
And that's when Naomi wakes up in the street.
- The opening credits are accompanied by David Bowie's brilliant "Blackstar." Series director Johan Renck helmed the "Blackstar" music video, so it's touching to see the late icon's work appear so prominently here.
- The French Riviera setting and the tone of the series remind me of Cédric Jimenez's The Connection, a film you should seek out.
- Speaking of film recommendations, don't miss Tahar Rahim's performance in A Prophet, one of the best films of the last several years.
- It's hard not to be impressed with the globetrotting in this episode, which takes us from the south of France to Hungary to Serbia. It's a testament to the focused writing and direction that we never get lost in the action. Let's hope The Last Panthers keeps it up.