Following 9/11, every one of the major Hollywood studios indefinitely postponed the release of the action-centric films on their upcoming roster, believing that the American public were in a state of such depression and mourning, violent escapism would be tasteless. They turned out to be wrong, as when many of these films were belatedly released in 2002, their surprising success proved that the American public were longing for violent escapism – a sense of cinematic patriotism that repositioned them as unbeatable heroes in the face of evil.
Bastille Day equally faced bad timing; filming finished in December 2014, before the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the November 2015 bombings turned the country into a state of national emergency, ensuring this action film about a Paris terrorist attack would have to be delayed in order to not appear tasteless. Despite being named after the French independence day, Bastille Day (uninterestingly renamed The Take in some territories) could never be accused of capitalising on French societal fears following the events of last year. This isn’t a nationalist action fantasy that reduces traumatising world events to braindead multiplex-bothering rubbish geared to rile up the masses. If anything, it is a brilliantly escapist, expertly choreographed action romp that has a real world conscience – the villains in this film are the far-right, who use terrorist attacks as a media weapon to cause disquiet in a peaceful, multicultural society. The film may be ridiculous, but it isn’t dumb.
It also moonlights as Idris Elba’s Bond audition tape, as he chews the scenery and delivers quips with equal parts menace and unabashed glee. Elba plays CIA agent Sean Briar, tasked with finding the person responsible for launching a bomb in the Parisian side streets that was responsible for four lives being taken. The only problem is the bomb was launched by an unassuming pickpocket (GoT’s Richard Madden), who didn’t see any valuables in the bag before tossing it aside, prompting the detonation. After becoming France’s most wanted man, he reluctantly teams up with Briar to find the people responsible for planting that bomb in the first place. At the same time, the police are quick to cover up the act by planting evidence at a local mosque, creating a piece of fascist manipulation that causes unrest in the city and social media. If you’ve ever wanted to see an action sequence beginning with the line “send the hashtags!” said with a serious face, Bastille Day is the film for you.
There is much to like about this film, especially when compared to a large portion of recent action cinema. For example, this may be a rare contemporary genre effort invoking terrorism that is quick to acknowledge that large scale threats aren’t the fault of either “immigrants” or “muslims” (those two supposedly evil sub-cultures in post 9/11 action), but rather the people who put those groups on a pedestal. Compared to the Donald Trump fantasias of London has Fallen (sample line of dialogue: “Go back to fuckhead-istan”), Bastille Day feels refreshing, without ever feeling like a hand-wringing left-wing counterpoint. After all, our hero still operates under a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality. But by acknowledging the true evil in society, albeit in a silly way, the film escapes the clutches of the far-right to become a rare apolitical work that can be thrilling to everybody.
How does it escape being political? Well, by never calling extensive attention to these themes, letting the action speak for itself. We are introduced to the offices of the French Nationalist Party via computer screen savers reading “France Pure”, the fact their leader’s surname is “Blanc” (French for white, obviously) and the Trump-esque hypocrisy of hiring all-immigrant cleaners whilst simultaneously demanding they be deported. In 30 seconds, all the information you need to know is established via production design, never pausing to make a political statement that would get in the way of the pure thrills.
Director James Watkins (Eden Lake, The Woman in Black) is a surprisingly effective action director, making the most of his little budget by staging scenes on side-streets or in claustrophobic interiors – a fist fight in the back of a van is a beautifully choreographed highlight. He makes his characters more than mere action-movie archetypes, which ensures you aren’t distracted by the lack of big-budget style in many sequences- even a rooftop chase, with aerial shots over the city, is clearly strained by its budget. But it is embedded as the climax to a sequence so thrilling it barely registers, such is the economy of great filmmaking.
Bastille Day isn’t going to win awards for originality, but it is a fun counterpoint to the dreary xenophobia of modern action cinema. Like the original Taken or The Transporter, it will likely become a cult film in the years to come, as opposed to setting the box office alight. Nobody is more surprised than me at how much I enjoyed this.