By Chris Nashawaty
August 10, 2017 at 12:13 PM EDT
Strand Releasing

Over the past decade or so, airport bookstores have been inundated with police procedurals and detective thrillers from all corners of the globe. On the same shelf you can find whodunnit pageturners set in Sweden (Henning Mankell), Botswana (Alexander McCall Smith), Laos (Colin Cotterill), and Sicily (Andrea Camilleri). The languages and local customs may change, but nothing is more universal apparently than the evil that men do. At their best, these stories not only wrap us around their pinkies with the nefarious nuts and bolts of criminal behavior, they also have something larger to say about the societies in which they’re set. It’s a much easier feat to pull off in the pages of novel (or a series of novels) than in a two-hour movie. But it can be done. You need look no further than writer-director Tarik Saleh’s new import, The Nile Hilton Incident.

Set in Cairo — the loud, chaotic, overcrowded capital of Egypt — The Nile Hilton Incident takes place in January of 2011, just before the country would be swept up in the internet-fueled revolution that finally toppled longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak from power. And you can feel the Middle Eastern country’s impending wave of frustration, corruption, and paranoia simmering underneath every scene in the film like white noise in the background. The film revolves around a widowed police detective named Noredin (Fares Fares), who thankfully is never painted as a paragon of virtue. Like so many cops in Cairo, he’s not immune from taking a bribe or pocketing the cash from a dead man’s wallet that will never find its way to the evidence room. With a smoldering cigarette constantly dangling from his lips, a nose like an anvil, and slicked back, carefully parted hair, he may not be a saint, but he does have his own flexible code of ethics — something that’s about to get tested over and over again over the running time of this vise-tight film.

When the film opens, Noredin is called to the scene of a murder. And it’s not just any scene and not just any murder. The former is a room at the Nile Hilton hotel — a oasis of calm in the middle of the urban storm for well-to-do Cairo socialites and foreign businessmen a stone’s throw from the city’s beating heart, Tahrir Square. The latter is the bloody, scantily clad corpse of a famous and beautiful nightclub singer named Lalene. When Noredin arrives in the room, he immediately smells something fishy. The other bored-to-death cops on the scene immediately rule it a crime of passion. But Noredin thinks it looks like a professional job. Unbeknownst to him, there was a witness to the crime — a Sudanese hotel housekeeper named Silwa (Mari Malek), who’s now hiding out, scared for her life since Lalena’s boyfriend was a married real estate mogul and member of parliament.

Noredin’s superior, who also happens to be his uncle (Yasser Ali Maher), tells him to tread lightly. This is a sensitive case, and certain members of the Egyptian upper class are basically above the law. But something about the murder and the dead girl and the willingness of everyone to look the other way, gets to him. So he proceeds to ask questions, sniff around, and put his own career (and possibly his life) in jeopardy. Soon, Noredin uncovers a kinky blackmail ring that involves sultry actresses and singers inviting rich men back to their honeytrap apartments to be secretly photographed by a sleezy Tunisian pimp, who sells them the photos for hush money. Of course, he finds this out the hard way, after falling into bed with a sexy chanteuse named Gina (Hania Amar). The whole thing feels a bit like an Arabic riff on Chinatown or L.A. Confidential — a neonoir with a tawdry edge where our imperfect hero will eventually be doomed. It’s not a question of if, only when he will lose.

We’ve all seen movies like this before. Maybe a lot of them. But coursing underneath all of the film’s hunches, twists, and conspiracies is an unsparing portrait of Egypt before the revolution. It’s a society where the connected are protected, the working class is fed a daily series of bureaucratic frustrations, and moral decay is everywhere. Watching it, you understand why everyday Egyptians were fed up enough to take to the streets and demand change. Like Noredin, in the end the Egyptian people didn’t quite get the justice or the change they were after. And you can see that tragedy writ large on Fares’ face as Noredin ultimately is crushed by forces bigger than himself. By the final scene, you almost want to pat him on the back and say, “Forget it, Noredin. It’s Cairo.” A–