How does a film that opens with a naked French woman, and starring Idris (Luther) Elba be bad? Welcome to Bastille Day, the latest and limpest in the string of Die Hard rip-offs (White House Down, Olympus/London Has Fallen) that sees an effective contemporary premise get strangled by tropes and worn out plot devices.
An American pickpocket in Paris (not the title of this movie, although it could have been) becomes the prime suspect in a terror plot when he steals the bag of a “bomb mule” being used as a pawn to incite violence and riots between the burgeoning Muslim population and the far right “fascist” conservatives. The explosive result of the discarded bag is only the beginning; CIA Agent Briar (Elba) must find the thief and uncover the plot before France’s national celebration results in the riots that it commemorates.
Writer Andrew Baldwin taps into the zeitgeist, mining the tension present in contemporary France (particularly), that in this situation could be manipulated for all sorts of ‘black ops’ or criminal activities wanting to disguise other shady manoeuvres. All the better that the co-lead character is a pickpocket, whose art is sleight of hand. However, the characters adhere to a formula that has been well and truly flogged to death (will someone think about the HORSES?!?). Even with the short 90 minute running time you find yourself wishing you could trim scenes in your head that don’t really do anything for the characters or the story. Idris Elba’s introductory scene, the most egregious example, where he’s grilled for his ‘lack of respect for authority’ and not to ‘step over the line’ as this is his ‘last chance’. Please, a moratorium on all scenes like this again in any film. It’s been done. The final insult that caused this reviewer to laugh out loud and award the line (and I’m sure I’m paraphrasing) “that final hash tag will push them over the edge;” as the most 2016 line that any villain has ever said, in the history of 2016.
Director James Watkins’ first film was the prodigious Woman in Black; whip smart, stylish genre storytelling. The style, the control and the performances in Bastille Day, resemble nothing of the Woman in Black.
You would never have known that Elba was a two time SAG award winning actor (in the same year no less) if Bastille Day was your first experience with the actor. The dialogue is impossible for him to elevate. The production values, especially in giving the performer the tools to be a convincing tactically trained operative are severely lacking. When the hulking Elba is stalking through the room he looks like Lurch nursing an assault rifle, there’s a significant problem. Elba should be lithe like a panther in the ilk of Val Kilmer in HEAT; hyper aware of spaces, coverage and exits. He’s a charmless beast, who feels about as ferocious as chihuahua wearing a body harness.
Madden has this strange quality of being able to exude confidence, power and charm and then completely shift it to this unworldly, juvenile fear. It’s such a huge attitude shift in the context of what’s happening that makes him unlikeable. In the beginning of the film, you get the sense that he’s at least going to attempt to be the whip-like wit that will offset Elba’s humourless Briar. He doesn’t; and their chemistry is bleached away with the middle distance focus on accents and striving for a spark.
None of the other actors matter, and they should. The French performers, especially our villains and their relatable (spoilers) cause dissolves because they’re given about as much attention as a James Bond Henchman. A large part of why Die Hard is timeless is a direct result of Hans Gruber (the wonderful Alan Rickman) being an amazing, engaging villain. None of the foes, in presence or stature feel like they’re up to the task of taking down Elba. They’ve got a cover for a bait and switch, their conspiracy is deeper than it looks and yet, there’s no tension.
Bastille Day reaches for the top of Nakatomi Plaza and takes a running swan dive out a window into the carpark.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: James Watkins
Written by: Andrew Baldwin
Starring: Idris Elba, Richard Madden, Charlotte Le Bon, Jose Garcia, and Kelly Reilly