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'Last Panthers' stretches taut suspense across Europe in 6-part heist miniseries on Sundance

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

A six-part miniseries premiering Wednesday on Sundance Channel, "The Last Panthers" begins with a heist gone haywire. Things get worse from there.

Created by playwright and screenwriter Jack Thorne, directed throughout by Johan Renck and beautifully acted in a variety of tongues, it is based loosely on the nonfictional Pink Panthers, a gang of highly successful international jewel thieves based in Eastern Europe. The series is slow to unroll, alternating well-handled bursts of action — mostly running, some driving, some shooting, punching and kicking — with longer periods in which characters circle one another, waiting for the next bad thing to happen.

Set largely in Marseilles, Belgrade and London, "Panthers" requires some attention, in part because it jumps between story lines, or into the past, without ceremony, and in part because each of its three main characters — Tahar Rahim as a policeman recently returned to Marseilles; Samantha Morton as a diamond expert working for high-end insurance man John Hurt; and Goran Bogdan as one of the thieves — have stories that intersect to lesser and greater degrees and enough complications for a series of his or her own. All are terriers, determined to see their individual business to the end.

It seems at first that "Panthers" will unfold as a classic procedural, whose end is the recovery of the goods, the capture of the criminals. But the robbery is just a catalyst for the real business of the series, which has more to do with matters of family and loyalty; the dangers of black-and-white thinking; modern Balkan history; and new modes of crime. The diamonds — although they keep returning to the screen, for a while — are really beside the point. And although the specifics and time and place are important to the production, much of the narrative material will be familiar from classic American westerns and gangster movies.

Renck, a former Swedish pop star who began his directing career in commercials and music videos (Madonna's "Hung Up," Beyoncé's "Me, Myself and I," the late David Bowie's "Blackstar," a song whose beginning serves as the theme to "The Last Panthers"), has a way of making the visuals complementary to the material. The color has been digitally leached from the image, so that the series proceeds in a wash of pale grays and browns, as if a bright blue sky or a lush green field were to insult the sorrow its characters wear like heavy overcoats. But style doesn't sink the story or make the details and milieu feel any less authentic.

It will help the viewer to have a high tolerance for suspense because in every strand of the story there is a continual threat of violence and because most of the characters are on balance sympathetic — there are a few who wouldn't be missed, if you get my drift, but even most of the worst are seen as products of circumstance, of being born in a certain place in a certain time. The more heroic figures here push against the weight of history, but in this world, even the desire to do good creates collateral damage.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'The Last Panthers'

Where: SundanceTV

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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