Bastille Day review: “preposterous, but delivers on the thrills front”

Idris Elba goes into maverick action-man mode in a Paris-set thriller that unavoidably recalls the real-life terror attacks of 2015

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★★★

Director James Watkins has shown himself to be something of a master of suspense with his stewardship of two very different exercises in terror – the exquisitely nasty Eden Lake and the phenomenally successful The Woman in Black. With Bastille Day he loosens his strangler’s grip and presses the pedal firmly to the metal for a film that aims to successfully blend breathless excitement, rogue law enforcement and fractious banter, and which its director hopes will recall such seminal works as 48 HRS and Dirty Harry.

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Written by Watkins and Andrew Baldwin and set on the not-particularly-mean streets of Paris, the resulting Euro actioner instead evokes the more unsubtle albeit reliably high-octane thrills of Taken. It’s a film that finds a thousand different ways to tell us that our hero, Special Agent Sean Briar (Idris Elba), is a maverick. Such shameless embracing of clichés is presumably intended to be part of its charm, as it wears its love for the genre loud and proud.

Briar is part of a CIA surveillance unit stationed in the French capital, operating under the leadership of Karen Dacre (Kelly Reilly). Another American zooms into focus in the shape of professional pickpocket Michael Mason (Richard Madden) who ends up in a wrong-man predicament, Hitchcock style, after he steals a bag containing an explosive device intended for the French Nationalist Party HQ, when a would-be bomber (Charlotte Le Bon) loses her nerve.

After the bomb goes off, the explosion is pinned on Islamic extremists and the terrorist threat level is raised ahead of the Bastille Day parade, but all is not remotely as it seems when dirty cop Rafi Bertrand (Thierry Godard) enters the picture. Meanwhile, a confused Mason is captured and interrogated by Briar.

Given the proximity of the November 2015 attacks, the prospect of seeing Paris under siege on the big screen seems contentious at best and highly insensitive at worst. Fortunately, what unfolds is a rather preposterous story of corruption that’s plenty removed from reality.

That the Americans are comprehensively played by Brits (which also include Anatol Yusef) gives Bastille Day an oddly phoney feel from the outset. And that they are emphatically the good guys – irrespective of their alternately shady and outlandish interference in French affairs – feels similarly off, particularly given the UK helmer.

The buddy dynamic between leading men Madden and Elba never really gets going due to a lack of well-employed humour, giving little chance for any chemistry to develop. Nevertheless, Elba has the acting chops and physicality to cut it as both a shrewd operator and action hero, even if the material he’s saddled with means his character pales in comparison to his TV tough guys.

Thankfully, the film predominantly delivers on the all-important thrills front. Fluidly shot by Tim Maurice-Jones, who worked with Watkins on The Woman in Black, there are a number of exciting traditional set pieces (a rooftop pursuit, car chases, a bank job). However, it’s the execution of a couple of smaller-scale moments that most impresses: namely an ingeniously staged fight in an armoured van that sees the adversaries bruisingly ricochet about the confined space, and a niftily engineered bar brawl set to Black Grape.

Having said that, director Watkins fails to demonstrate quite the same flair for the overall action package as he has done for horror, as his film largely lacks the individuality and ingenuity to compete with the top end of the genre. Bastille Day positions the bar low from the outset by merely aiming to emulate others. But, if it’s short on swagger, the film at least has the legs to keep things pacey and eventful throughout its trim 92-minute duration.

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Bastille Day is released in cinemas on Friday 22 April