Sunday, September 11, 2016

Bastille Day (2016)

American pickpocket in Paris Michael Mason (Richard Madden) steals the wrong bag when he takes one belonging to Zoe Naville (Charlotte Le Bon), for Zoe’s bag contained a time bomb she was just about to wander off with and throw into the Seine. Initially, she was supposed to deposit it in the office of a racist French nationalist party the film is too polite to name but when she realized said office wouldn’t be empty as promised by the boyfriend who convinced her of the whole thing, she changed her plans.

Michael’s inadvertent intervention ends with four dead bodies, an anonymous message that promises more violence of this sort to come on Bastille Day, and him hunted as the responsible party. Before the French can identify him, the CIA does. And because this is the CIA, they don’t give this rather important information to their allies  – because then they’d have to explain why they have access to surveillance cameras all over Paris – but send out reckless, violent, and nearly disgraced agent Briar (Idris Elba) to illegally detain Michael for a day to torture as much information out of him as possible. Briar might be a bit of a thug, but he’s also not stupid, and he quickly realizes that Michael isn’t responsible for any bombings. In fact, the whole thing will start to look to him like something quite different from terrorism and  only the beginning of a series of provocations set to use the fissures in French society to throw Paris into chaos for rather more petty reasons. Briar, once he’s got a whiff of what’s really going on, will stop at little to get to the truth and the people responsible, even if it means teaming up with a pickpocket and a woman who nearly did something deeply stupid and most certainly highly illegal.

I found James Watkins’s Bastille Day a surprisingly fun film. I’m generally quite sceptical about the slow but steady trickle of international productions seemingly following the lead of Luc Besson’s Europacorp in style and content. However unlike quite a few of these films as well as much of the actual Europacorp output, this one’s actually a neat little addition to the action and thriller genres.

It is even not completely stupid. Sure, the film’s attempt to include the influence of social media and the spread of information as parts of its plot is an interesting idea not very intelligently realized, and the bad guys’ plan has certain shades of the first Die Hard movie with Paris as the skyscraper, and obviously never reads as something that would actually work this way exactly the way they want it, given its dependence of large masses of people acting exactly like they want thanks to the magical power of hashtags, a mysterious Internet thing I’m not terribly sure the scriptwriters have actually encountered in the wild. However, as action movie background guff needed to get the violence and the chases rolling goes, this passes muster quite decently. And hey, while this isn’t a meditation about the worst sides of online culture trickling into the real world, or a film that has something clever to say about mass manipulation, the film’s background is rather more interesting than the usual “Idris Elba shoots the evil terrorists”, and at least tries to use elements of the real world. There’s also the little fact that the film uses its implausible plot with an impeccable sense for the kind of rhythm – which is what the thriller genre, with an emphasis on action like this one has or not, is all about - this sort of thing is supposed to have.

Watkins again turns in a not terribly charismatic but effective direction job, generally following the philosophy that action films are supposed to be edited in a way that enables the audience to follow what’s going on in them and doing a good job with that. The action isn’t exactly realistic in feel but also not terribly over the top, aiming for a middle of the road approach that works quite well for the film.

Idris Elba is an actor you could actually imagine to be physically capable of the stuff he’s doing here. Elba doesn’t, of course and alas, need to strain his considerable acting talents here much, for Briar is a pretty empty vessel; the film doesn’t even make much use of the mistake that brought him to Paris nor does it ever show any interest in explaining who its protagonist actually is apart from slightly insane and exceedingly violent. So all Elba has to go on is his physical presence, which is fortunately also considerable.

All in all, this is bread and butter action thriller stuff done right, even though it’s certainly not a classic of the genre.

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