Cast: Idris Elba, Richard Madden, Charlotte Le Bon, Eriq Ebouaney, José Garcia
Director: James Watkins
Writer: Andrew Baldwin
Given the tragedies that Paris has seen in recent months, an action-thriller featuring a terrorist plot in the French capital seems like the last kind of film that any studio would want to release. Bastille Day, which was filmed before either of the attacks on the Bataclan theatre or the Charlie Hebdo offices took place, seems to me to be more a victim of bad timing than anything. This film is at its core a silly but enjoyable action movie and shouldn’t be misconstrued as something it is not. While it may seem a little inappropriate to some, it is just too trivial and meaningless to be offensive. In a way the fact that it was released at all might even be a good thing. It signifies a refusal to be defeated by the tragic events that have befallen Paris and other places like it. While Bastille Day is not nearly smart or sophisticated enough to be anything more than a typical run-of-the-mill thriller, I’m still glad that I was able to watch and enjoy it.
A few days before the French national holiday of Bastille Day a con artist called Michael Mason (Richard Madden) stumbles into a crisis beyond anything he could have imagined when he steals and disposes of a bag containing a bomb. The bomb ends up detonating and killing four people, leading Michael to become a target for the CIA. Leading the investigation is Sean Briar (Idris Elba) who immediately tracks Michael down and takes him into custody following a chase over the rooftops of Paris. During the interrogation Michael manages to convince Sean that he is nothing more than a bystander who was in the wrong place at the wrong time stealing the wrong bag. Realising that he can use a man with Michael’s talents, Sean enlists him to help discover whether the intended explosion is part of a larger plot.
What saves this film from being a bore is that it contains two leads who work well together and who add much energy to the story. What holds it back from being a marvel is that the story itself is quite silly and the action isn’t particularly thrilling. There’s enough going on in this film to hold your attention for about 90 minutes (provided you’re willing to switch off your brain for that time) but certainly not enough to bring you back. The film tries to be socially relevant with its use of revolutionary hashtags and viral videos as the inspiration behind an attempted uprising against the government, an attempt that utterly fails when confronted with logical thinking and common sense. However things like logical thinking and common sense have no place in a film such as this which at its best thrives when you aren’t getting caught up in the implausibility or absurdity of the story. Admittedly overlooking such flaws would doubtless have been easier had the action been more impressive but what action they did have sufficed.
Luckily Idris Elba and Richard Madden are both there to liven things up. Even though they’re both British actors putting on American accents who sound like British actors putting on American accents, they share a chemistry that is most enjoyable to watch on screen. Elba’s character is effectively a simplified, less nuanced version of John Luther; a reckless, belligerent agent who plays by his own rules but who also gets results. It’s fun and all, just don’t expect to see Elba bring his A game. Madden plays a similarly standard character as a swift and nimble pickpocket who keeps getting himself into trouble but who is ultimately noble at heart. Hardly revelatory or groundbreaking stuff but it gets the job done. I enjoyed following these characters as they went about saving the day and they made what was otherwise a generic, run-of-the-mill movie fun and memorable.
A complex and challenging drama Bastille Day is not. It is far-fetched, clichéd and more or less by the numbers. Anyone who expects anything more is watching the wrong film and anyone who expects anything less will, I think, be pleasantly surprised. There is nothing in this film that you will not have seen in a dozen other thrillers, but Elba and Madden are both good enough that the film never quite feels banal or redundant. This is the kind of movie where you can happily switch your brain off for an hour and a half to enjoy some over the top action with a little bit of language and T&A mixed in. While knowledge of the attacks in Paris does inevitably have a dampening effect on this movie, Bastille Day should not be interpreted as any sort of commentary on the subject. It has neither the brains nor the inclination to be that kind of movie. It would be almost like viewing Commando as a representation of the United States Army. Just enjoy it for the trivial, nonsensical action movie that it is.