Yes, it’s formulaic, an odd couple of underdogs facing a vast conspiracy, the lonely American saving France. Yes its marketing in this country was severely hampered by the mad truck terrorist attack in Nice on July the 14th, which in ricochet delayed screening in some other countries. It should have been a hit in UK, considering the portrait it paints of contemporary Paris, a city only a few inches above Baghdad in terms of safety, riddled as it is by larceny, fundamentalism, riots and corruption. Oh, and naked women in the streets. Bastille Day nevertheless achieves quite a good deal in the packed, dense, urban thriller genre.
The setup goes like follows: a terrorist group intends to plunge Paris into chaos by manipulating traditional and electronic media. Their first strike is to have a mule dropping a bomb at the headquarters of the “French Nationalist Party”, but the girl gets cold feet when the building is not empty as expected. Her bag with the bomb inside is stolen by a pickpocket (Richard Madden), who discards it in a trash can, killing four people and making him the prime suspect in the process. As the pickpocket is a US citizen, the Paris branch of the CIA tasks free electron Sean Briar (Idriss Elba) to find him before the French Police does, in an increasingly tense situation as the terrorists follow up with their plan, triggering a city-wide state of unrest.
Bastille Day‘s screenplay is not bad, including three twists that can hardly considered as novel but serve a logical progression of the intrigue. The third twist actually resonates in our time and age; it is the third time in a row that street protest is connected to mad finance, as was the case in Money Monster and Jason Bourne, even though in this case the latter is not the cause of the former. The three main characters (including José Garcia as the Head of French Intelligence) are competently written and well acted. But what Bastille Day has that places him a notch above other thrillers in the same vein is the force of nature also known at Idriss Elba.
A wrecking ball with a golden heart, Elba bludgeons into the story like the unstoppable force he so convincingly embodies. In a Vertigo-inspired, vertigo-inducing roof top chase as in more intimate scenes in which he conveys credible menace as well as the occasional sparkle of humour, he’s impossible to doubt, impossible to resist. He even manages to fool French policemen into thinking he’s one of them by piping “Oui, je arrive”. So cute. He’s also very affable to ordinary people he come across during his investigation, most of them African French in suburbs or the Barbès area. The fact that Elba is black himself allows him a connection which cleverly bridges the cultural gap his American origin could entail (he tells the fable he’s a refugee from Belize, only to tersely state later on that he was born in Connecticut). But it is his sweetness which gets him through his investigation pitfalls, that and of course and the brute force he’s able to summon at will. “Pinky pumps?” offers the pickpocket when they close a deal, and Elba’s reaction makes that extraordinary desirable, even though you’re quite sure he would tear up your little finger without blinking.
Yes there are some “This is Paris, vin rouge, Louis Vuitton” dialogue, no the prime suspect never shaves his beard even though his picture is on every screen, yes the final confrontation is a bit of a letdown. But for his Anonymous, typically contemporary sacrifice during the National Reserve bravura scene, and some delectable use of the French vernacular (“Abrutis de merde!” being a personal favourite), Bastille Day is quite good. The lingering question, however, remains why make this kind of fiction in the first place if a brush with crude reality makes you chicken out of its release? How long will politically correct circumnavigate violence, when it had so abrasively eroded race, sex, work and ethics? The answer to that question, if there is one, certainly doesn’t lie with Bastille Day, but one is grateful to the movie to ask it, even involuntarily.