Bastille Day movie review: No fireworks in this cheesy thriller - Idris Elba is only thing setting it alight
If a film knows it's trashy, does that make it okay? That's a question I found myself asking frequently during Bastille Day, a breezy and clumsily plotted Anglo-American thriller that marries the smirking jokiness of 80s buddy action films with the geopolitical complexities of today. It was filmed in Paris in the autumn of 2014, and proved grimly prophetic: the film's terrorist storyline became problematic in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks, and its release was delayed out of respect.
All of this might make Bastille Day sound newsy, and urgent, but in fact it's anything but: it's a cheesy and hackneyed action yarn that winks at the camera and just about gets away with it. It does so mainly because of Idris Elba, an actor with more than enough presence and charisma to hold this kind of thing together. Some people just look right in fight scenes, and if Daniel Craig has really hung up his Walther PPK, a worthy successor awaits.
Mr Elba is Sean Briar, a black ops CIA agent who's just arrived for his new posting in Paris when all hell breaks loose. In a nicely handled opening sequence, we watch an American pickpocket called Michael Mason (Richard Madden from Game of Thrones) stake out a female mark near Montmartre and expertly steal her backpack.
When he looks inside and finds only a teddy bear, he throws it in a bin and walks off, but seconds later a huge explosion injures him and kills half a dozen others.
The teddy had a bomb in it, which Zoe Neville (Charlotte Le Bon) had been persuaded to carry by her scheming boyfriend. The original plan had been to attack the headquarters of a right wing political party, but Zoe got cold feet when she realised the damage it might cause, and was about to throw the bomb in the Seine when Mason stole her bag.
Dispatched by his superior (Kelly Reilly) with strict orders to behave himself, Sean Briar soon tracks down Mason, whom everyone assumes is a radical terrorist. When Briar takes him to a safe house and begins knocking the truth out of him, he realises that Mason is merely an ordinary criminal who's got mixed up in someone else's bombing campaign. But before he's finished the safe house is attacked by two masked assailants who appear to have paramilitary training. And soon Briar is dealing with a far-reaching terror conspiracy that isn't quite what it seems.
Directed by James Watkins, Bastille Day has the good sense to play to its strengths, for a time. Filmed across greater Paris in gritty locations like Gennevilliers and Barbés, it has the earthy visual palate of a Jason Bourne movie, and some of the stunt work to match. In the film's best action sequence, Briar chases Mason across the rooftops of central Paris, sending loose tiles tumbling to the distant streets.
There are some decent fight scenes too, but Mr Watkins is no Paul Greengrass, and Bastille Day rides its luck as the chancier elements of its storyline begin to emerge. Richard Madden does not convince in a central role, looking more like a passing choirboy than a criminal, and in fact this is a film oddly short on colour and personality in its broader cast.
Kelly Reilly's character is woefully underwritten, her appearance frustratingly brief, and while French character actors like Thierry Godard and José Garcia perform competently in one-dimensional roles, they all fade forgettably into the background whenever Idris Elba is around.
Bastille Day only works because of him: he grabs it by the scruff of the neck and drags it in the general direction of watchability, bossing every scene and swaggering around the French capital as if he owns it. Ever since The Wire, people have been singing the big man's praises, and he scarcely puts a foot wrong here, though he might have thought twice before committing his vocal stylings to Bastille Day's dodgy soundtrack.
Bastille Day (15A, 92mins).
Also out this week: Movie reviews: Miles Ahead, Louder Than Bombs, Friend Request