Most observers would agree Mathieu Kassovitz fell into a pronounced fallow period after La Haine anointed him French cinema’s great white hope almost two decades ago. The French, in particular, may never forgive him for the ultimate sell-out of 2008’s Babylon A.D.: a Vin Diesel-starring sci-fi parable, made with French subsidies, which proved about as authentically Gallic as the cola product that had somehow survived the Apocalypse to appear in every other shot.

Backs were duly turned when Kassovitz’s latest film Rebellion – a return to his native language, adapted from GIGN negotiator Philippe Legorjus’ memoir La Morale et L’Action – opened in France in late 2011. That’s something of a shame, it turns out, as the film itself heads back in the direction of the kind of knotty political realities the director’s recent films have all too visibly shied away from.

In 1988, with the Mitterand-Chirac election battle dragging on to the extent Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right Front National were being invited to break the deadlock, Legorjus (here played, very capably, by Kassovitz himself) was dispatched to New Caledonia, a once-idyllic French colony in the southwest Pacific, to negotiate with the leaders of an uprising that had already seen four gendarmes killed and thirty more taken hostage.

You don’t have look far to spot the complacency in the French ranks. Seeing how tiny these islands are, the soldiers accompanying Legorjus wonder how long it’ll be before they can turn their attentions to surfing. The locals initially treat these arrivistes with indifference bordering on disdain; when the pressure gets cranked up from the mainland by functionaries seeking a favourable resolution before the big vote, it only exposes the jurisdictional faultlines separating Legorjus and the local gendarmes from the army, whose force would brutally and tragically override any attempt at peacemaking. Earthly paradise goes very quickly to hell.

Kassovitz’s anger at the critical and commercial failure of this obvious passion project is understandable, not least as the collective back-turning only perpetuates the blindness the authorities displayed towards New Caledonia first time around. Yet it’s clear he’s finally regained some of La Haine’s electrifying urgency and clarity of purpose.

Proceeding against a countdown to a final day of reckoning, Rebellion charts a jittery, barely-holding stand-off between white landowners and restless natives that doesn’t seem very far removed from the banlieue tensions of its maker’s breakthrough work. Even minor, quotidian interactions spiral out of hand here; men venture beyond their depth; terrain gets increasingly tangled and deadly, building to a masterful suspense sequence as the soldiers advance through the jungle towards the hostages and their captors.

Much of this unusually intricate and detailed action movie, however, takes place in hotel suites, debating chambers or remote caves, where – like its mediating protagonist – it can shift up and down the chain of command, bringing back a variety of perspectives. Like Legorjus, Kassovitz and his co-writers strive to get everyone around the table, giving the Kanak separatists behind the uprising a voice – which is more than Argo, for one, attempted.

The Kanak presence is particularly crucial, because at the heart of these talks sits the Pons statute, which – in extending French sovereignty – threatened to eradicate several centuries’ worth of tribal customs: it’s all a matter of control, thrown violently skywards at a moment when France was trying to work out just who exactly would man its own tiller.

The direction sometimes tends towards bombast – a flat lift from Apocalypse Now (that touchstone of post-colonialist cinema) here, some full-frame, close-up editorialising there – yet the whole forms an intriguing update of the cinema of Costa-Gavras and Pontecorvo, explicitly evoking The Battle of Algiers when one officer notes New Caledonia was the first French occupation since Algeria.

Between this and last year’s below-the-radar The Assault, it seems French cinema, itself in something of a slump of late, could just be ready to take a lesson or two from its German equivalent in more rigorously examining its less exalted historical moments. And while Rebellion’s underperformance on home soil might put that self-questioning project on hold for the time being, it’s nevertheless a taut and highly engaged piece of work – an encouraging sign that Kassovitz may yet find an alternative route back to the zeitgeist.

Rebellion opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Rebellion Trailer