“Athena” begins in a state of maximum tension and escalates from there. An angry crowd has gathered outside a police station near a high-rise housing project in the suburbs of Paris. A video of the killing of a local teenage boy, apparently by uniformed officers, has gone viral, igniting long-smoldering resentments. Violence breaks out quickly, and before long, the talk on social networks and news broadcasts will be forecasting not civil unrest, but outright civil war.
At the center of the maelstrom, spinning in different directions, are the slain teenager’s three surviving brothers. Abdel (Dali Benssalah), the first one we encounter, is a soldier in the French Army, recently returned from combat in Mali. He’s inside the police station when the trouble (and the movie) begins, and his long walk to meet the demonstrators outside symbolizes his predicament. He’s pulled apart by conflicting loyalties, caught between the power of the state and the rage of the streets.
His brother Karim (Sami Slimane) is a militant leader in the process of becoming a military commander as protest accelerates toward armed conflict. With guns and vehicles seized from the forces of law and order, Karim and his army of young men stage a small-scale revolution, taking control of the courtyards and corridors of Athena, the high-rise complex where they have grown up in poverty and alienation.
Another brother, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), is a drug dealer whose business is disrupted by the chaos. He and his associates are trying to get out of Athena while Karim is trying to lock it down and Abdel, increasingly desperate and less and less secure in his convictions, is attempting to calm the situation.
Fraternal melodrama and social turmoil provide fuel for relentless action. In principle it’s not a bad formula, and “Athena,” directed by Romain Gavras from a script he wrote with Ladj Ly and Elias Belkeddar, is not shy about evoking gangster movies, classic westerns and classical tragedy, investing its contemporary story with brutal, archaic power.
Gavras’s filmmaking is technically impressive. He pulls the camera through complex, kinetic tableaus in long, breathless takes. Some of these sequences are thrilling, but after a while they become repetitive, and Athena feels more like a video game background than an actual place. There’s no modulation: Nearly every scene ends in either a screaming argument or a literal explosion. Karim and Moktar rarely utter a line without shouting. Abdel is more of a brooder, at least for a while — Benssalah has a clenched, melancholy watchfulness that holds your attention in the midst of all the noise — but eventually he starts yelling, too.
There are other characters: a young riot policeman (Anthony Bajon) who is taken hostage, and a terrorist mastermind (Alexis Manenti) who is coaxed out of retirement to join Karim’s rebels. Their presence complicates the plot, and amplifies the film’s hectic, hectoring gestures toward topical urgency. But like the three brothers, these secondary figures are sociological composites, inserted into a carefully diagramed, ultimately incoherent narrative scheme.
You could argue that “Athena” uses the syntax of action cinema to make a point about the state of French society. And while it’s true that there are real issues at play here — police violence, racism, the disaffection of the immigrant underclass — the filmmakers don’t so much explore as exploit them, giving a loud and sloppy genre exercise a patina of relevance.
Rated R. Nonstop violence. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. Watch on Netflix.