Seen Lost Bullet? It’s one of the best action movies of the 21st century

Sacre bleu, the French really know how to do white-knuckle, low-budget action filmmaking. Travis Johnson celebrates Lost Bullet and its new sequel, saying the films “don’t rewrite the rulebook…but are a great example of why the rulebook exists.”

Here’s a simple fact: the most creative filmmaking happening right now is in the low budget action movie space.

You may turn up your nose at the sort of movies that used to be direct-to-video staples—violent, straight-forward thrillers committed to delivering a respectable bang/buck ratio—but it’s here, far from the algorithm-generated streaming service carousels of the world that filmmakers can let their freak flags fly, unfettered by studio mandates and generic “house styles” (coughMarvelcough).

Unfortunately, such films struggle to find a sizeable audience, largely down to the aforementioned algorithms—they disappear into the back blocks of the Netflix catalogue with nary a ripple, and it’s generally enthusiastic word of mouth that gets new eyeballs on them. With that in mind, and French thriller Lost Bullet 2 having just landed on Netflix, it’s time that I use my mouth (well, fingers, technically) to enthusiastically form the words: you should check out Lost Bullet. It’s an absolute banger.

Released on Netflix in 2020 and directed by first-timer Guillaume Pierret, Lost Bullet (Balle Perdue in French) sees stuntman-turned-actor (always a good sign) Alban Lenoir as genius-level criminal mechanic Lino, who is pinged by the cops in the opening moments of the film but gets a sweetheart deal: if he’ll help soup up the fuzz’s car fleet to help them intercept the “Go Fast” cars used by drug smugglers crossing France’s southern border, he’ll get a reduced sentence.

Unfortunately, crooked cops murder Lino’s police patron, Charas (Ramzy Bedia), and pin it on our hero. What’s a muscled-up, Jason-Statham-looking guy to do but fight his way out of the police station and go looking for the titular lost bullet of the title that will clear his name? Violence, mayhem, and some stunningly choreographed hand-to-hand action ensue (Lino is, in addition to being an expert mechanic and driver, a martial arts prodigy. No explanation is ever offered).

Lost Bullet 2 is, wonderfully, more of the same, with Lino now heading up an elite narcotics unit and hellbent on avenging his brother, Quentin (Rod Paradot), who wound up on the first film’s extensive casualty list (like a certain other car-centric franchise, Lost Bullet places a premium on family). It’s an altogether more brutal affair, with nastier action and a more complex, morally ambiguous plot as Lino crosses a number of ethical lines in his quest for vengeance.

But everything that made Lost Bullet such a joy is still present. These are stripped-down, propulsive actioners; Pierret understands that in action, plot really only exists as a framework on which to hang a number of blistering set pieces, and time spent on convoluted narrative machinations could be better spent watching Lino beat the living hell out of bad guys.

The fight choreography in these films is amazingly inventive; the stand-out in Lost Bullet is the aforementioned police station escape, where our man has to batter his way through an army of cops without killing anyone and comes up with a number of tricks that would make Jackie Chan smile. In Lost Bullet 2, a home invasion sequence sees him deploy a casual brutality that must be seen to be believed, disassembling three mooks with admirable savagery.

Stylistically, Lost Bullet splits the difference between the heightened reality of Cinema du Look (think early Luc Besson) and the grittier, gnarlier tone offered by more “realist” films such as the recent Athena (also on Netflix, and a must see), giving us a sleek, polished but low-key mood that eschews bombast but still delivers groovy “rule of cool” aesthetics. They’re street level films, but these aren’t the streets outside your window—we’re in a slightly surreal action movie universe whose laws, both legal and physical, are not quite our own.

In that sense we’re not a million miles away from John Wick, The Raid, or even the Fast & Furious franchise—all movies that operate by their own increasingly arcane rules. And, like F&F, the Lost Bullet films are car chase movies, and while I am ride or die with the Toretto clan, the physical stunts in Lost Bullet are far more impressive than the increasingly weightless CGI melees that Vin and the gang indulge in. Charmingly, Lino’s signature vehicle is a hotted-up Renault 21—a zippy little family sedan he’s transformed into a rolling murder machine, and it’s a joy to see him obliterate all-comers in a car usually reserved for school runs and grocery shopping.

The Lost Bullet flicks don’t rewrite the rulebook, per se, but they are a great example of why the rulebook exists. At a time when studio actioners are getting increasingly moribund, a little Gallic mayhem might be just the ticket.