Over the past few years, action fans have been treated to a run of solid French programming on Netflix. Athena was one of the best movies of 2022, Julien Leclercq’s Sentinelle is a solid dark Olga Kurylenko thriller, Ganglands (and the movie it was based on, Braquers) are excellent crime fare, and Lost Bullet and its sequel outdo even the Fast and Furious franchise when it comes to explosive vehicular action.
The latest entry in this burgeoning scene is AKA, a new Netflix pickup that stars Alban Lenoir as Adam Franco, a highly skilled special-ops agent faced with one of his most dangerous assignments yet. Franco is implanted undercover on the security team of a notorious crime lord (infamous soccer legend Eric Cantona, a tough guy once suspended from the sport for kicking a fan). Franco makes a big impression after quickly rendering the head of security unconscious after a verbal spat, and he becomes the bodyguard for the crime lord’s bullied son, teaching the child how to fight and defend himself.
It’s pretty much “Man on Fire lite” — another movie that seems inspired by Philip Nicholson’s 1980 novel Man on Fire. AKA isn’t an official adaptation of the book, like Élie Chouraqui’s 1987 French movie version or Tony Scott’s stylized 2004 thriller. But it has a lot in common with them: It’s a dark crime story about a grizzled operative bonding with a child, and the lengths that operative will go when the child is in danger. While it lacks Scott’s directorial flair, AKA has something few other movies have: Alban Lenoir.
Lenoir started his career as a stunt performer, working on a variety of French productions and on Pierre Morel’s 2008 game-changer Taken. After a series of small parts, he got his big break in 2015’s French Blood, which screened at TIFF and saw Lenoir nominated for a Lumières Award for Most Promising New Actor.
A few years after that came Lost Bullet, a tightly contained vehicular thriller where Lenoir plays Lino, a master mechanic and thief pulled into a scheme by crooked cops and framed for murder. In order to prove his innocence, he has to find the last remaining piece of evidence from the crime — a single lost bullet.
Lost Bullet and Lost Bullet 2 are among the best action movies of the decade, using simple narratives to construct elaborate, kinetic set pieces. The fistfights are brutal, the car chases are electric (sometimes literally), and it’s a turbo-charged action series reminiscent of the early Fast and Furious movies.
But Lenoir is the secret sauce to these movie’s recipes. He always brings a calm, intense, grounded energy to his roles, with a face that screams, “This guy has been in a lot of fights.” Lenoir moves like an athlete and hits like a truck, and while he plays highly capable characters skilled in violence, he imbues them with an Everyman energy. His characters get hit plenty, and are frequently exhausted by the grueling fights they wind up in. In AKA, there’s a funny scene where Adam simply wants to take a nap, but keeps getting interrupted by notifications and instructions from his handler (who he communicates with through PlayStation voice chat, gamers).
Lenoir is also a writer, and he co-wrote the screenplays for both Lost Bullet movies and AKA. AKA sees him reuniting with director and co-writer Morgan S. Dalibert, the cinematographer on the Lost Bullet movies. (The two also previously worked together on 2005’s New World, Dalibert’s directorial debut.) Some of the action scenes stand out in AKA, particularly a complex brawl in a drug den and a fight outside a club shown through CCTV. Dalibert also repeatedly frames action at the back of long, narrow shots, adding depth to some of the sequences, and he takes delight in telegraphing objects that will be used in a fight — lingering on a hook on a wall to get viewers excited about how it will be brutally deployed.
AKA’s overarching narrative never really gels — there’s a vast conspiracy theory floating around the edges of the movie, but it isn’t given enough time to really come into focus. The movie’s pace also slows as it stops to give some characters more specific backstories, which is a shame, because the actors were already filling in a lot of those gaps through their performances. Thankfully, Lenoir’s unique presence helps elevate the movie to solid streaming fare.
AKA is at its best when it showcases Alban Lenoir, Action Star, rather than its own status as a less stylish Man on Fire. It’s still worth watching if you’re interested in the new wave of French action cinema, and one of its most intriguing stars. But if you haven’t seen the Lost Bullet movies yet, definitely prioritize those for excellent Lenoir action.
AKA is streaming on Netflix now.