Men in white coveralls enter a Marseille jewellers. They headbutt the doorman, force customers to the ground and give the staff typed orders – they’re not going to risk speaking. When the manager refuses to give up the code for the safe, the robbers douse her in pink emulsion, stick a pistol in her face, and the safe’s promptly opened. Then they’re out, and setting fire to petrol-soaked cars. It’s a textbook high-concept smash-and-grab – until a stray bullet hits a child.
Jack Thorne, best known for adapting This Is England for television, has crafted a sleek thriller in The Last Panthers, a six-part series that revolves around the real-life Balkan crew the Pink Panthers, imagining the consequences of their theft of €15m in diamonds. As they make off with the loot, the gang’s flourishes are recognised by loss-adjuster Naomi Franckom (Samantha Morton) and her boss Tom Kendle (a delightfully croaky John Hurt). Police interest in the case comes from French detective Khalil (Tahar Rahim), whose interactions with various European hoods qualifies The Last Panthers as subtitled drama.
Deciding to go after the guns used in the crime, Khalil leads the viewer into a sprawling international underworld; this spooks his boss, who’s anxious to assign him to sim-card fraud. Khalil doesn’t know that one of his targets is robber Milan Celik, played by Tom Hardy lookalike Goran Bogdan. He’s a sympathetic criminal cajoled into freeing his old mentor, who is currently languishing in a Belgian prison – kept safe by his connections to the Serbian paramilitary group the Tigers.
This visceral, intelligent heist drama avoids every cliche and is powerful enough to invent some striking new scenarios (boardrooms full of mercenaries gone legit, grey-lit Serbs plotting in quarries). Everyone has a past, and the Bosnian war casts a shadow over everything. Naomi was once a UN peacekeeper; whatever Milan went through has left him scarred, monosyllabic and lethal with his hands – a skill he will need when the gang’s first attempt to sell the stones leads to a gruelling strip-search.
Other nail-biting set pieces include an aerial prison break, and a scene where Milan and his ambitious boss Zlatko watch an out-of-work doctor sew diamonds into a tranquillised dog’s neck. The show’s real brutality, however, is its dialogue, portions of which seem timely in the face of the EU referendum. “You’re a sweaty leech from a country of sweaty leeches,” says a legitimised gangster to a shocked John Hurt. “You fucked over Greece, Italy, Ireland, Spain – they have nothing left. And now you’re coming east.” A Serb heavyweight later announces: “We’re backed by the EU, but not yet soiled by the euro. For the first time in my life, Serbia has value.”
The Last Panthers is careful not to give every villain the same background. Zlatko – a man so amoral he has a fur sofa – is stunned by a party for the 1% where the prostitutes are all colour-coded (rose for VIPs, yellow for special friends, blue for anyone). And the real villains of the piece might be closer to home than either the French or British good guys could imagine. When the regeneration deal he is buying into takes him to the Scottish wilds, Zlatko’s approached by a grouse-shooting corporate crony. “On this hill are 25 of the most powerful people in the world,” she tells him. “Together, we can do anything.”