What use is your algorithm if it doesn’t alert me to a movie in which Olga Kurylenko goes full-on John Wick on the French Riviera? Julien Leclercq’s Sentinelle seems to be in danger of falling through the Netflix cracks — one of the many foreign films that premiere quietly on the streamer without making a ripple culturally — and on some level, it’s not hard to see why. Kurylenko’s career has maybe not gone as well as some hoped after her turn as a “Bond girl” in Quantum of Solace, but she’s a terrific actress, and has endeared herself to weirdos like me with roles in such critically dismissed but secretly amazing films as Oblivion, To the Wonder (for which I would have happily given her an Oscar), and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. In the grand scheme of things, there are certainly worthier titles to highlight than an 80-minute French action-movie knockoff that would have gone straight to DVD back in the days when DVDs were a thing. Still, Sentinelle is an admirably swift, elegantly filmed spine-snapping action thriller with moments of surprising grace.
The film opens in Syria, where Klara (Kurylenko), working as a French army interpreter, witnesses the killing of her comrades by a young suicide bomber.
Returning home to Nice, she is transferred to work with Opération Sentinelle, a real-life, ongoing domestic military operation France initiated after the ghastly terror attacks of 2015. The spectacle of bands of fully armed soldiers slowly, tensely walking along sunny Mediterranean boardwalks as ordinary citizens jog and moms pass by with strollers is certainly a dissonant image, and the film embraces the surrealism and monstrosity of this new reality.
Shattered by her wartime experience and popping opioids like candy, Klara sees threats everywhere. At one point, she trains her rifle on a child whose father is tying his shoelaces, because the kid is making the same open-armed stance that the boy in the film’s opening sequence did. It’s a rather blunt, obvious character moment — but it also suggests that Klara’s trauma is one small part of a universal atmosphere of suspicion and hate. Later, she chases after a mysterious figure along the waterfront; when she catches him, she discovers that it’s her dealer.
Always on edge, Klara finally loses it when her younger sister Tania (Marilyn Lima) is beaten and sexually assaulted after going off with some Russians at a local nightclub. Suspicion soon settles on Yvan Kadnikov (Andrey Gorlenko) and his father Leonid Kadnikov (Michel Nabokoff), the latter an oligarch with friends in high places and an army of bodyguards at his disposal. Frustrated with the cops’ methodical approach, Klara takes matters into her own hands, and multiple body-slamming, limb-breaking, head-smashing beatdowns ensue.
The aforementioned John Wick movies definitely seem to be an inspiration here, but Sentinelle doesn’t quite match the gloriously cartoonish heights of that series. For starters, it lacks a Hollywood budget, and let’s face it, Olga Kurylenko isn’t exactly a veteran ass-kicker like Keanu Reeves or Charlize Theron. But that can be an asset, too. Klara never comes off as a killing machine (not even of the lumbering, dadsploitationy kind, à la Liam Neeson). She’s quiet, but she’s not cool. She’s vulnerable. She gets hurt. Every fight scene feels like it could easily end with her dead or maimed, which brings both unpredictability and a sense of penance to it. Klara wants revenge — but a part of her maybe also wants oblivion and absolution. The picture is fleet, but it’s not light. And Kurylenko, whose beauty has always had a haunted quality to it, is kind of perfect in the part; Klara’s unrelenting desperation holds together the film’s competing tones.
One doesn’t want to make too great a claim for Sentinelle. Action fiends might wish it had more breathless setpieces. Arthouse types might balk at the simple characterizations and bare-bones storyline, especially as the film flirts with some important hot-button issues (terrorism, militarism, assault, addiction). But there’s something to be said for the lean, modest efficiency of a movie that knows how to grab your attention and not overstay its welcome.