British director James Watkins has labelled his latest big screen effort a fun, Friday night cinematic ride. Aspiring to Walter Hill’s 1982 unorthodox buddy movie 48 Hrs, which starred Nick Nolte and a baby-faced Eddie Murphy as cop and con respectively, Bastille Day represents a marked change in direction after acclaimed horror-chillers Eden Lake and The Woman in Black. If expectations of Watkins’ third feature are kept within the boundaries of wham-bam-thank- you-ma’am generic action thrills and spills, audiences should be satisfied enough, but as pulse-raising as it is to see Idris Elba let loose as a gun-wielding CIA agent on the streets of Paris there remains a lot that that is highly problematic here.
When a light-fingered master of distraction and pickpocket, Michael (Madden) – also American, mistakenly pilfers a bag containing a bomb destined to blow up the French Nationalist Party HQ but instead destroys a busy Place of innocent civilians, he becomes suspect number one. Seeking to clear his name and solve a conspiracy that, predictably, goes way up in the Parisian police authorities, he and Briar must work together to crack the case; it’s paint-by-numbers stuff but perhaps the kind of easy-minded action flick you would want to unwind with on a Friday night. Watkins doesn’t have a great script to work with – screenwriter Andrew Baldwin throws in very thinly sketched xenophobic sentiment and a “Fuck the po-lice” anti-establishment riot whose basis is not explained at all – but the director shows real guile in choreographing dizzy rooftop pursuits, high-speed chases and fight sequences that are done well.
Comic interplay between Madden and Elba does give rise to a few mildly funny moments but whether Bastille Day is a film to be laughed at or with is never evident and given recent events it seems in bad taste to do either. Paris is a city that always looks fantastic on film and although filmed well before last year’s tragedy, its release delayed and now to hit cinemas in the wake of the Brussels attacks, the film’s success may be ill-fated. Its explosive subject matter is questionably close to recent wounds. However, taken as a transient, high-paced and familiar rock ’em, sock’ em kind of film, it packs quite a punch.