British director James Watkins ventures into the action genre with Bastille Day, his previous successes being Eden Lake and The Woman in Black which are both rooted in the horror genre.

Bastille Day is set in Paris and follows a troubled but loveable pickpocket, Michael Mason (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden), who steals a bag belonging to naïve revolutionary Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon). This contains a bomb meant for the headquarters of France’s National Front but – after being found by Mason – is tossed into a pile of rubbish on a busy Parisian street.  Seconds later the bomb is detonated leaving four people dead, which places petty thief Mason as the prime suspect in a nationwide terrorist manhunt. The first person to track him down is rogue agent Sean Briar (Idris Elba), heading a secret investigation for the CIA. Briar soon discovers that he has been hunting the wrong man, and reluctantly teams up with the small-time criminal to fight terrorism and stop the plans for France’s national holiday.

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Idris Elba’s “reckless” and “insubordinate” character echoes his role as defiant detective John Luther – without the grittiness and with a much less convincing accent. Elba endeavours to bring life to this one dimensional creation, but falls short due to a disappointing script. Madden executes his role well and allows the audience to empathise with a pickpocket whose ‘profession’ is usually met with disdain. However, attempts to introduce camaraderie between the protagonists feel unnatural, which again is primarily the fault of the script. The forced humour falls flat and doesn’t fit in with the serious nature of an action film centred around terrorism. The supporting characters are undeveloped, which inevitably leaves audiences unaffected by their gruesome ends.

Frankly, the plot is absurd. It’s filled with way too many action clichés. Some of these are to be expected, but – given the fact that almost every character is willing to form partnerships with this policeman and suspected criminal – it can get a little far-fetched. Admittedly, most successful action movies are not hailed for their realism, but the serious tone established in the first half doesn’t match its ludicrous ending. Bastille Day’s use of social media is awkward – the main villain causing unintentional laughter by claiming “the hashtags will push [the radicals] over the edge”. This is just one of numerous examples where the film – rather uncomfortably – attempts to bring a modern twist to a classic genre.

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Having said this, there are aspects of Bastille Day that must be praised. The action-packed fight scenes are the film’s saving grace – one particularly exhilarating rooftop chase is reminiscent of Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace. Rapid cuts during the fight scenes build tension and cater to action fans who are looking for well-choreographed stunts. Thankfully Bastille Day dodges the xenophobic stereotypes that are rife in films like London Has Fallen, and handles the issue relatively tastefully. This is even more praiseworthy given the terror attacks in Paris in November last year.

Overall, Bastille Day is confused. It fails to commit to one genre and instead skims over several – leaving the audience bewildered. The initial concept had great potential but was spoiled by its far-fetched plot and average screenplay. The actors are undeniably charismatic, but this isn’t enough to make the film a hit.

The fight scenes are exciting and will give action fans a rush, but everyone else should steer clear – unless you want to hear Idris Elba’s husky tones on the closing credits.

Saskia Dunlop

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Images sourced from ‘Bastille Day’, Focus Features.

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