It’s about time that Idris Elba took centre stage in a big screen action film. And if there’s one thing that stands out during Bastille Day, it’s not the eerie real world parallels (the film, about a terrorist attack in Paris, was actually shot before the events of November 2015) or the brace of British actors speaking with American accents; it’s that Mr Elba is very good at taking centre stake in a big screen action film.
But the film doesn’t open with him. Instead, we’re flung straight into the centre of France’s capital while Richard Madden’s Michael sneaks through a throng of distracted Parisians and pickpockets the lot of them. Madden is playing against type as a sarcastic street criminal, but enough of his Prince Charming/Robb Stark charisma shines through and urges you to root for him.
It’s a fun little opening, but in a film with terrorism at its heart, of course this light-heartedness can’t last. After a bomb goes off, Michael accidentally finds himself as the prime suspect.
Enter Mr Elba as Agent Briar of the CIA, a moody monolith of a man with the intimidating shape of a brick outhouse and a gruff personality to match. Elba totally embodies this unhappy and often violent character, to the point that you’ll end up forgetting how charming an actor he often is. That’s no small feat.
Briar is sent after Michael and a thrilling series of chases ensues. Taking cues well from Paul Greengrass’s Bourne films, director James Watkins finds frenzied and frenetic ways to frame this pursuit. A rooftop running segment is the highlight, providing some thumping thrills before the pair finally unite and talk it out.
Up until this point, Bastille Day fires on all cylinders. Impressive action, strong performances and a nice little slice of intrigue emanate from the first act. Unfortunately, the film gets a bit wobbly after its leads are brought together. They work up a decent rapport and as a pair become highly watchable, but sadly the other strands of the movie aren’t.
The main villains are particularly weak, with an overly convoluted plan and not-particularly-clear motivations. And, on top of this, the script totally misrepresents how social media works as a way to give them unrealistic levels of power. (“Release… the final… hashtag!” is a standout line, but probably not in the way that the writers intended).
It’s a shame that the film devolves like this, because Bastille Day sets itself up as a pacey thrill-ride very well, but ends with generic action film beats and not much payoff to its promise.
Thankfully, Madden and Elba have enough shared charisma to keep you interested. Briar and Michael’s bickering provides a few laughs, and Charlotte Le Bon’s Zoe (a local who ends up assisting the authorities) brings a lot of charm to the table as well. And Watkins proves himself a highly capable action director; the kind you’d like to see given a bigger budget in future.
By the time that Bastille Day finishes, though, you’ll more than likely wish you could watch this great cast together in a film with a tighter script.