The first half or so of Nid de guêpes has maybe twenty lines of dialogue, total, but that’s only because the movie does such a good job of showing its story that talking about it would be redundant. The remainder is only marginally more wordy, but it follows through on its promise of being one of the tightest, smartest and most enjoyable action movies I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s remarkably overlooked, probably because it only received a direct-to-video release in the Americas (from Lions Gate), and it seems action movies not in English can’t get a theatrical audience unless they star someone named Chan or Chow.
Nid de guêpes, or The Nest as it’s been branded in English-speaking territories, does several things that go against action-movie conventions, but in good ways. First, it sets up its story almost entirely through visuals: instead of people standing around explaining what’s going to happen, we just see it, period. Second, it does away with a good deal of the “I’m the hero, therefore I’m immortal” nonsense that plagues most action films — this isn’t about one hero, but several teams of fighters, many of whom are scared, tired, wounded, or just plain not up to the job. And finally, it’s a French production — not a country most people would think of as being a source of kick-butt action cinema, but here we are. (Actually, France has produced more than a few such movies — Dobermann, for instance, although I wasn’t fond of the way that one disintegrated into noisy, pointless chaos.)
Security guard Louis has a very bad day at the office when thugs burst in and rob the place.
And that's just the start of his problems.
The opening stretch of the film sets up four parallel plot threads. Louis (Jean Reno-esque Pascal Greggory) is a night watchman at a cargo warehouse, and the movie engages in a little shameless “shotgun foreshadowing” when he sticks his pistol into his belt and throws a last furtive look back at the inside of his house before heading off to work. Laborie (Nadia Fares) is a tough-as-nails S.W.A.T. officer — think a Gallic Ellen Ripley here — assigned to escort Albanian human trafficker Nexhep (Angelo Infanti) to justice in an armored vehicle. There is also Santino (Benoit Magimel) and his gang of thieves, sabotaging cell towers in the neighborhood and descending on the warehouse to steal a whole shipment of IBM laptops. And then there is the army of night-vision wearing commandos who have come to bust out Nexhep at any cost.
The beauty of the movie’s first half is in how elegantly everything is set up without a single detail being forced. We learn about Nexhep not through the news broadcast that comes later in the film, but when Laborie opens and reads his file en route; the expression on her face says everything we need to know. (I am rather pleased at the way action movies have come lately to include women as participants and not simply pawns, and how this seems to be the case with movies from all around the globe.) Then the commandos descend on the convoy, bullets fly, and Laborie and her crew — including an iron-mask-wearing German sharpshooter — dive into the warehouse for safety. They find none there.
Cops, thugs and outlaws all square off inside and outside "The Nest",
where tough-girl Laborie and her gangster cargo have also taken refuge from the storm.
There is a moment that marks the midway point of the movie that absolutely must be seen to be believed. Both criminals and cops dive for cover as the commandos surround the building and riddle it with enough gunfire to make the lighting fixtures plummet to the floor and the soda in the freezer explode. As over-the-top as the movie’s action might seem, though, there’s never a moment when it’s flat-out cartoonish — no, not even when they’re driving a bulldozer in through one wall of the building and using it to shove cargo boxes into a load-bearing beam. Because the movie takes the time to establish that it takes place in the real world, where bullet wounds maim and a fall from a decent enough height will cripple you, we buy it. The movie also does something else subtle and welcome: they did not amp up every gunshot to feel like a cannon going off in your gut. They make the nervous, thin tattering of gunfire in the background a lot more effective in this flick than you might think it would be.
As with most action films, whatever characterization there is gets mostly slipped under the door between blasts of gunfire. But the character touches are nice: there’s an interesting quasi-rivalry between Laborie and the sharpshooter, and I also liked how she wins over one of the female crooks with a baby picture. (The guerillas outside have no personality, however — they’re essentially drop targets in a shooting gallery, anonymous behind their bestial-looking night-vision goggles.) The best thing about the way the crew is set up is how everyone is seen as being limited, but still vital: there are individual acts of heroism, but no one hero who emerges victorious to lord it over everyone else. If this were an American movie, I kept thinking, it would consist of Bruce Willis gunning down a legion of bad guys, solo, without even so much as getting a paper cut.
As splashy and exciting as the action is, it's also grounded firmly in realism: heroes die quickly, but teamwork works.
Nid looks and sounds classy, but it’s not so flashy it becomes distracting. I was reminded more of the relatively restrained action we see in real-world spy thrillers (The Bourne Identity or the balls-to-the-wall Ronin), not the pumped-up nonsense of Bond movies or dumb junk like 2 Fast 2 Furious. Nest was directed by Florent Emilio Siri, and if the name sounds vaguely familiar to video-game mavens it’s because that’s the same Siri who gave us the Chaos Theory and Panda Tomorrow installments of the Splinter Cell games. It feels like he took many of the same lessons about how to do this sort of thing right and made good on them. The ultimate irony? He’s been tapped to do an American action movie … with Bruce Willis.