For some time now, whenever the conversation turns toward the casting of a non-white actor for the next James Bond film, Idris Elba is usually the first name to come up. After all, this suave East Londoner has proven acting chops, has a lovely, manly figure, and (in a modern, multicultural sense) is as impeccably English as chicken tikka and chips. As if to answer the crucial question, “But can he run over rooftops and throw credible-looking punches while looking fierce in a suit?” here comes Bastille Day. It turns out that, yes, he can, but this tacky, occasionally risible, but not entirely unenjoyable American-French co-production won’t enhance anyone’s reputation much.
Teamed up with Richard Madden’s (Game of Thrones, Cinderella) professional pickpocket, Elba turns in a two-note performance here as a CIA agent — although thankfully that’s at least a note more than the range displayed in his bellowed rendition of the end-credit’s theme song, “The Road Less Travelled,” co-written, co-performed and co-produced by Elba and Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim. Bastille Day opens April 22 in the U.K. and then will dribble out to various international territories thereafter, hitting France in time for the titular July holiday itself, but no plans have been announced as yet to release it Stateside.
Although both lead actors hail from the British Isles — as does Kelly Reilly, wasted here in a three-scene role as Elba’s colleague — for some mysterious reasons all three are playing Americans. And yet there hardly seems to be much narrative need for Elba’s character, Sean Briar, and Reilly’s Karen Dacre to be in the CIA as opposed to, say, MI6 or Interpol or some made up non-existent spy organization that’s not French. Perhaps saying they’re CIA was thought to be the only convincing way to explain why they have access to so much ultra-high-tech surveillance equipment and always manage to be one step ahead of the French security forces, especially the French “Ministry of Homeland Security,” which is headed by wily political apparatchik Victor Gamieux (Jose Garcia).
When Madden’s American pickpocket pro Michael Mason steals a handbag from earnest left-wing activist Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon, a dead ringer for a young Winona Ryder) in the Pigalle district, he abandons it in a nearby square thinking there’s nothing of value inside. Little does he realize that there was, in fact, a bomb in the teddy bear, and when it detonates Mason finds he has unwittingly killed four people.
Mason’s face is caught by security cameras and soon broadcast to the nation. Luckily, a stolen jacket and a pair of filched sunglasses (his shoplifting game is that good) are enough to keep anyone from recognizing him until Briar tracks him down. Unfortunately, the shady gang (led by familiar craggy-featured character actor Thierry Godard), who were using Zoe to plant the bomb at the French Nationalist Party headquarters (she had a change of heart when she thought innocents might be killed), have some pretty spiffy tech themselves and track Mason down to an apartment where Briar has the thief stashed. Fisticuffs and the aforementioned rooftop chases soon ensue. Before long, Mason and Briar find themselves working as a team on the run as Bastille Day approaches, and even enlisting Zoe to help them, as they gradually realize that the bad guys, although indeed quite bad, are motivated not by religious zealotry or even politics, despite first impressions.
As twists go, the one devised here by Andrew Baldwin and director James Watkins is actually pretty nifty and tweaks viewers’ expectations and tendency to “profile” people who look a certain way, like the mostly swarthy, shaving-averse villains here. But then the film goes and squanders this advantage with some ludicrous attempts to evoke a contemporary feel by giving far too much credit to various social media as an instrument for manipulating citizens into starting riots (“Release the last hashtag!”). It ends up playing like a shoddy blend of V for Vendetta and Mr. Robot but without the budget bandwidth or style of either.
As if to compensate for budgetary limitations, aerial views of Paris are continually inserted to add scope and exploit the city’s natural photogenic qualities. Either that, or the filmmakers fear that viewers might forget where the film is supposed to be set. Location use, apart from an obvious London naval college at the end, are persuasive for the most part, although knowing what Parisian traffic is generally like, the key car chase stretches credulity excessively.
Production companies: A Studiocanal presentation in association with Amazon Prime Instant Video, Anton Capital Entertainment in partnership with Vendome Pictures of an Anonymous Content production
Cast: Idris Elba, Richard Madden, Charlotte Le Bon, Kelly Reilly, Jose Garcia, Thierry Godard, Vincent Londez, Arieh Worthalter, Anatol Yusef, Eriq Ebouaney, Stephane Caillard
Director: James Watkins
Screenwriters: Andrew Baldwin, James Watkins
Producers: Philippe Rousselet,Steve Golin, David Kanter, Bard Darros
Executive producers: Michel Dreyer, Dan Macrae, Guy Stodel
Director of photography: Tim Maurice-Jones
Production designer: Paul Kirby
Costume designer: Guy Speranza
Editor: Jon Harris
Music: Alex Heffes
Visual effects supervisor: Simon Hughes
Casting: Julie Harkin, Michael Laguens
Rated R, 92 minutes