Film Review: Bastille Day


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.

One issue is the fact that a British-led cast – Richard Madden and Kelly Reilly completes the pack, the latter reuniting with Watkins after her appearance alongside Michael Fassbender in Eden Lake – are all speaking American. They don’t do so poorly but the accents are an unnecessary contrivance (presumably for budgetary reasons) that is a constant distraction. Reilly does her best, but fails, to keep Elba’s loose cannon, Briar, on a short leash as he crashes cars, bursts through windows and bashes down doors left, right and centre: Elba’s considerable frame put to good use as a human battering ram of a character who displays an equally blunt level of finesse and subtlety.

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.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens

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