Structurally, The Last Panthers blends crime-genre plotting with allusions to contemporary geopolitical gamesmanship. A heist in Marseilles kicks things off, with a quartet of robbers storming a posh bank, daringly lifting 15 million euros’ worth of diamonds while splattering a bank manager with pink paint—a calling card that resonates with investigators familiar with the organization’s storied history. Though the thieves have clearly rehearsed their getaway with great exactitude, changing into disguises and passing off the stolen goods, one accidentally kills a girl in the crossfire, ruining the diamonds’ resale value on the black market.
The heist leads audiences down a yellow brick road into a web of European corruption. The thieves are descendants of the Pink Panthers, a legendary band of robbers who rose out of Serbia. The Last Panthers unspools an elaborate story that merges the tensions emanating out of that country’s blossoming relationship with the European Union with an exploration of the ghosts haunting the Yugoslav War, among countless other atrocities and impenetrable territory disputes. The present generation of Panthers is going modern, updating their brilliant roughneck ways, engaging with “proper” European politics and business interests, in a fashion that deliberately recalls the exploitive look-the-other-way policies that allowed war crimes to proliferate in the Balkans under the U.N.’s nose.
Series co-creator Jérôme Pierrat, a former journalist, is quite conscious of the nesting hypocrisies that often drive war, humanitarian efforts, law enforcement, and elections of all sizes, resulting in collaborations between enemies. The Serbia of The Last Panthers is a land unable to shake its past, nursing a kind of little-man syndrome as a nation, struggling for a greater global reputation, that’s particularly resentful of Britain’s willingness to profit from violence that it might not deign to commit directly.
These resonances are embodied by four central characters who are each accorded their own separate slice of narrative: Naomi (Samantha Morton), a British insurance investigator looking to recover the diamonds for the bank, though she has a murky past involving a tragedy that occurred in the aftermath of the Bosnian War; Khalil (Tahar Rahim), a French-Algerian cop also investigating the heist while battling an inter-police alliance with a local gang that has connections to the Serb criminals; Milan (Goran Bogdan), a second-generation Panther unable to adjust to his robber gang’s new white-collar way of doing business; and Tom (John Hurt), Naomi’s boss, a wily, urbane, seen-it-all cynic with dueling motives.
The Last Panthers’s labyrinthine story, barely sketched in six episodes, would ideally take several 10-to-13-episode seasons to unpack. With such an abbreviated running time, nuances aren’t allowed to breathe. The characters are never able to reveal themselves to us behaviorally; instead, they’re constantly barking exposition, moving at a breakneck pace that clearly owes a debt to 24, while rushing back and forth from various spots in the Balkans to England to France and back again.
Nearly every relationship is defined as existing between idealistic soldiers and fallen mentors, or between disappointed children and their literal or symbolic fathers. All four primary narrative threads, and many of the tertiary subplots, pivot on a younger person as they’re betrayed by an authority figure. All the fragments, then, are ultimately the same, and more and more characters are endlessly introduced, while flashbacks have a habit of appearing just as the present-day timeline is in danger of gaining momentum.
The Last Panthers pressures one to like it with its power of prestige. Exposition somehow sounds more pressing when laced with bureaucratic jargon, and the series wears its journalistic roots proudly, evincing a degree of detail that’s impressive and laudable, particularly in terms of revealing how French and Serb gangs interact and hide and ship guns and other illegal wares. Certain images beautifully, subtly encapsulate various historical parallels in a second or two, such as a shot of dead gang members that’s clearly meant to recall pictures of Balkan genocide.
But there are few grace notes and no real surprises beneath the pumped-up topical melodrama. The Last Panthers’s aesthetic is as numbingly generic as most of its characters, favoring that ashtray-gray sheen that many filmmakers prefer when staging European crime stories. The Balkans, France, and England are all lit in exactly the same fashion, causing one to wonder if the sun ever rises in these regions. The choreography of the action is trim and coherent, but forgettable. In place of drama, The Last Panthers offers a decent introductory term paper.