With two excellent horror films already under his belt, fledgeling British writer/director James Watkins (Eden Lake, The Woman in Black) turns his attention to the action genre with Bastille Day. The result is a tightly constructed piece of work, driven by a scintillating leading man performance by Idris Elba (The Wire). The film’s narrative centres around a terrorist bombing in Paris which makes for obviously sensitive subject matter in the wake of the terrible atrocities that rocked the French capital last year. This instils an eerily prophetic quality and added weight to what is is an essentially escapist action film. Watkins’ film was shot in 2014, prior to the tragic incidents at Charlie Hedbo and The Bataclan and was never intended to be realistic. It still may hit too close to the bone for those directly affected by the attacks.
Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) plays Michael Mason, a dislocated American drop out who is getting by in Paris as a highly skilled pickpocket. He steals a bag from troubled activist Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon) outside a café one evening, unaware that a bomb is concealed inside. Ditching the bag on a busy street, the bomb subsequently detonates killing innocent civilians and Michael finds himself as a prime terror suspect. CIA agent Sean Briar (Elba) is tasked to bring Mason to justice but when the pair finally cross paths it becomes apparent that a dangerous and deeply convoluted terrorist plot is afoot and an unlikely allegiance is forged.
The less you know about the intricacies of the plot, the more enjoyable your experience will be. There are a number of clever twists to keep you on the toes, but the film is ultimately reliant on a number of implausible narrative deficiencies to keep the action moving. A rather convenient hole in a wall is just one glaring example where a suspension of disbelief is required. Despite the odd absurdity, there’s much fun to be had here. Idris Elba is superb. An imposing, intimidating and suave screen presence, his take on the loose cannon CIA agent channels other iconic action heroes such as John McClane and Jack Bauer. Elba’s performance adds personality, intrigue and depth to what could have been an overly derivative and formulaic character. The partnership with Richard Madden works a treat also. The pair riff off each other in a consistently captivating, well written and humorous serious of exchanges. Their compelling partnership is key to the film’s success and they are ably supported by Le Bon, who gives a complex and quietly powerful performance as Zoe. The villains are less impressive, their motivations are hazy and at times they come across as two dimensional caricatures. The film is beautifully paced though and action sequences are really well executed with some truly stunning set pieces which are sure to please fans of the genre. Paris itself is an integral character to the film and the city is beautifully captured; it’s streets and rooftops are utilised for optimum visual and dramatic effect.
There are some obvious flaws in terms of plausibility and the story becomes increasingly far fetched as the film hurtles toward the climax, but this is still a hugely enjoyable thriller. Despite the loaded subject matter, this is not a film that should be taken too seriously. Elba and Mason are irresistible and James Watkins composed direction is impressive. If a sequel comes to fruition, it would be most welcome. Tightly plotted, skilfully acted and visually engaging, Bastillle Day is a satisfying, barnstorming thrill ride. Great stuff.