Movie Review: Bastille Day

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A CIA agent is forced to team up with a pickpocket in order to prevent an attack on Paris during Bastille Day.

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James Watkins, 2016

On the night before Bastille Day in Paris, American pickpocket Michael Mason (Richard Madden) steals the wrong bag, setting off a bomb in a crowded square. It isn’t long before Mason finds himself the target of a city-wide man hunt. He goes on the run, but it isn’t long before he’s caught by CIA agent Sean Briar (Idris Elba). Briar forces Mason to make a deal to help him find the bag’s previous owner, frightened patsy Zoe Neville (Charlotte Le Bon), and prevent further attacks on the city. They’re in a race against the clock, with the attackers announcing their intention to cause more explosions on Bastille Day. Soon riots break out, with progressive Parisians revolting against a violent, authoritative police force. This complicates the situation for our heroes. The more they investigate, however, the more they find that the seemingly simple terrorist attack has complex roots, and their clever adversaries always seem to be one step ahead.

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Bastille Day is a funny cross-cultural beast of a movie that was released with little fanfare. Set in France, it features two moderately well-known British leads playing American characters. There literally isn’t a single French hero in the film – there’s the complicated Zoe, but she certainly isn’t what I would classify as one of the film’s heroes. José Garcia (or the French Robert Downey Jr, as we like to call him) puts in a good show as the French chief of police. Other than those two roles, all the key players are Brits – Elba, Madden, and Kelly Reilly as Elba’s CIA boss. The film is largely a pretty straightforward action thriller – there’s a rooftop chase scene, a few decent car chases, and a showdown with some cool moves – but it is one that’s well-made. The action in this scene feels brutal, with real-world consequences that don’t often make it into American films. It shows a different side of Paris to the romanticised version we usually see – this film is on the streets and in shoebox apartments, showing Paris as a working city instead of a tourist destination. The film has a crisp, clean look and tight pacing, and the unusual intelligence of the bad guys along with shifting loyalties from the unpredictable heroes leads to a tense storyline. That’s mostly undone by the final act, but it keeps the film chugging along previous to that.

This film almost reads like a James Bond audition for Idris Elba, who smashes his way through obstacles like the Hulk on a bad day. It’s a Luther-esque role that doesn’t do him any particular favours, but he does it well. He’s always watchable, and he fares a little better than Richard Madden. Madden seems a little lost in this film – his American accent is all right, and he’s cute, but he never quite manages to sell what is one of the film’s more interesting roles. Elba and Madden work well together, though, developing a nice chemistry during the film which is completed by Le Bon once she is dragged along on their adventures as the film goes on. She does well in what is largely a victimised role, selling Zoe’s idealism, desperation, and fear. The film takes a look at France’s social issues while trying not to take any sides, which can come across as a little condescending at times, though at least it acknowledges these issues. In the end it ditches any moral complications in order to be a straightforward good guys vs. bad guys affair.

Bastille Day on IMDb

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