Idris Elba stars in disappointing action-thriller.
If you mess with Idris Elba, he will look for you, he will find you, and he will… well, you know the drill by now, n’est-ce pas? Bastille Day certainly does, casting this so-hot-right-now British star as one of the modern Euro-thriller’s regulation shoot-first-ask-no-questions-whatsoever mavericks.
Nothing is going to stop one-man CIA wrecking crew Sean Briar from foiling a potential terrorist attack on France’s national holiday: not those spoilsport desk jockeys trying to stop the habitual ass-kickings he doles out to assorted swarthy, disposable henchmen; and certainly not the dozy thugs themselves, whose entire plot hinges on inciting mob riots through social media mobilization. “The hashtags will push it over!” crows one villain in deadly earnest, obviously oblivious to Generation Y’s one-click slacktivism.
Yet it’s one such mopey Millennial from whom Briar needs help – American pickpocket Michael Mason (Richard Madden), whose inadvertent pilfering of a bomb-in-a-bag sets off a fatal explosion and makes him chief suspect for these prospective, unofficial Bastille Day fireworks.
Mason stole the bag from morally conflicted mule Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon), whose reluctance to carry out her mission also makes her a target. So Briar tries to grab the pair before both the French authorities and bad guys close in, all while trying to figure out if the terrorists’ ultimate scheme has been borrowed from The Rock, Die Hard or some other Luc Besson-produced mayhem instead.
Given that the film is clearly working on a smaller scale than any Jason Bourne or John McClane outing, on a technical level British director James Watkins (Eden Lake, The Woman in Black) and his crew definitely squeeze out plenty of woah for their Euro.
An early rooftop pursuit is sure-footed and exciting, thrumming with a propulsiveness and spatial awareness that eludes many modern action filmmakers. A later fight scene with multiple combatants cramped inside the back of a police van is inventively visceral. And a chain reaction bar pickpocketing scene, randomly but enjoyably scored to ‘90s UK indie band Black Grape’s ‘Reverend Black Grape’ is deftly handled. Elba’s burly presence makes a good contrast, too, with Madden’s more limber, fluid physicality. Visually, they’re a good odd couple.
Which is just as well because sadly when either of them, or pretty much any character, opens their mouth, mostly what comes out is a stream of movie clichés. Elba’s introduction scene – which sees him face down his superiors and chide one guy for wearing “tighty whiteys” – is flat-out terrible. Later on when they identify Mason from CCTV footage, the background info they pull up and hilariously announce is more like a screenwriter’s character notes rather than any official government report.
Watkins has spoken of the films he’d like to emulate, including gritty ‘70s thrillers like The French Connection and ‘80s buddy movies like 48 Hrs. This, frankly, is nuts. The only French connection here is the Parisian setting and if you want to follow 48 Hrs, shouldn’t you cast a fast-talking Eddie Murphy type? Or at least include some jokes? Madden is fine, but a motormouth comic he is not. And surely now, after Kit Harington’s dreary Spooks: The Greater Good and Emilia Clarke in the diabolical Trmn8r Jenysis (or however it’s misspelled), we need a moratorium on Game of Thrones stars quickly shoehorned into lackluster actioners: you’re young, you’re hot; winter isn’t coming that quickly, so take your time.
As with its alleged film inspirations, ultimately what undoes the film is its ever-widening gap between ambition and execution. Though filmed before last year’s horrendous Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks, Bastille Day doesn’t feel overly exploitative because, at first, it’s genuinely trying to work through some nuanced ideas about nation state snooping, extremist nationalism and xenophobia; then latterly, the plot turns so bat-merde crazy that to mistake it for some realistic post-Bataclan statement, would’ve been like looking to 007 for Cold War solutions.
Speaking of Bond, no doubt some viewers will be craning to see whether Elba’s tough guy heroics are a successful audition for Her Maj’s most famous Secret Service agent. Since he’s saddled with a role so sketchy that it makes Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills from Taken look like DiCaprio Oscar-bait, Bastille Day isn’t the film to judge him on. Still, the man’s natural presence and charisma burn through (he even contributes an end credits song – what odds on a Bond role and theme tune double duty?), but enough for the movie’s final threat of more Elba/Madden buddy-themed adventures (Anzac Day? St.Patrick’s Day?)? Hashtag non, merci.