Ganglands, on Netflix, is a breathtaking French series about a professional criminal and an amateur thief who are drawn into a violent turf war in Belgium. This fast-paced 6-episode series can get a little confusing, as it concerns back stabbing and double dealing within the Belgian drug trade, but it’s worth the trouble. The action kicks off when Liana (Tracy Gotoas), a fearless yet immature young thief, and her lover Shaïnez (Sofia Lessafre) act as escorts and rob a low-level drug dealer. The problem is, when they took his bag, they didn’t realize there were 8 kilos of cocaine in it. The dealer’s boss is the ruthless and volatile Saber (Salim Kechiouche), whose father Hassan (Noureddine Farihi) is a godfather type in a Belgian drug family. When Saber’s guys kidnap Shaïnez, they trigger the wrath of her uncle Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), the leader of a small professional gang of “heisters”. Being the experienced and reasonable criminal that he is, Mehdi agrees to find the cocaine and return it to Saber in a trade for his niece. His first task is to find Liana and shake her down, but it turns out the coke was stolen from her by yet another gang. So, Liana and Mehdi team up to find the coke and save Shaïnez. Impressed by Liana’s bravery and hustle, Mehdi takes her under his wing as they work through the inevitable and dangerous complications that arise in their mission.
Ganglands opens on Mehdi and his gang in mid-heist. They are the real deal, using drones to surveil, and sometimes distract, the target. Outfitted in full tactical gear, using military-like teamwork and preparation, the gang remains serenely calm throughout the job. The guys have clearly worked together for a long time, and are like family to each other. Not only is Mehdi skilled, he is a man of his word, which is extremely rare among criminals. Saber, realizing Mehdi’s value, blackmails him into stealing an enormous shipment of drugs from a competitor (Geert Van Rampelberg) before he will release Shaïnez. And he does it! At no time does he say, “Screw this guy, let’s kill him and take his drugs.” But Saber’s competitor doesn’t take nicely to being robbed, and Saber’s father and cousin (Nabiha Akkari) are trying to stop an all-out gang war between Brussels and Antwerp, so things get extremely messy.
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Ganglands was created by the French filmmaker Julien Leclercq, who is known for his stripped-down action movies, all of which come in under 90 minutes. In fact, his film The Crew also stars Sami Bouajila as a professional criminal very similar to Mehdi. When he was offered the chance to make a series, he said, “Why not?” and appropriated elements of The Crew into Ganglands. Here Leclercq maintains his spare and relentless style, but the series format lends itself to a more engaging story. One of the things that interested Leclercq was the apprenticeship angle. He cites The Professional with Jean Reno and Natalie Portman as his inspiration for the Mehdi and Liana plotline. I watched The Crew, and it felt hollow compared to Ganglands, despite having a similar premise and lead actor, so I hope he continues to pursue series.
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Our Take on Ganglands
It’s worth mentioning that French film star Sami Bouajila is outstanding as Mehdi. If you aren’t familiar with him, he’s a handsome man-a cross between Denzel Washington and Peter Berg. And he absolutely commands the camera. Tracy Gotoas as Liana is also fantastic as she swings between threatening, fearless criminal and vulnerable, broken teenager. The plot can get byzantine, and unfortunately there are no recaps, so if you don’t binge it in one sitting, you may have to scan earlier episodes to remember who is who. However, it all shakes out in the wash, with a very clear path to a second season. It would be easy to dismiss Ganglands as brainless action, but it’s richer than that due to the interpersonal relationships throughout several plotlines. If you liked Gangs of London, you will like Ganglands.
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