The Assault (L’Assaut): Film Review

Intense, locked-and-loaded hijack thriller blows out lots of brains but spills few ideas.

Based on events which unfurled over three days in December ‘94, writer-director Julien Leclercq's film is a gripping yet one-dimensional account of a French counter-terrorist offensive on a hijacked airplane.

PARIS — The Assault (L’Assaut) is a gripping yet one-dimensional account of a 1994 French counter-terrorist offensive on a hijacked airplane. Filled with gutsy set-pieces and dizzying pyrotechnics pulled off on a small budget, it should be the perfect Hollywood calling card for writer-director Julien Leclercq. Box office following March 9 local release will be adequate, with additional targets hit in overseas ancillary.

Based on events which unfurled over three days in December ‘94, the film follows in merciless detail how four members of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) infiltrated an Air France jetliner on the ground in Algiers, holding over 200 persons hostage before forcing the plane to take off and then land at an airport in the Marseilles suburb of Marignane. There, a French special forces unit (the GIGN) engaged in a Wild West-style assault on the aircraft, killing the captors and liberating the passengers and crew.

What makes l’assaut de Marignane a rather unique case is not only the success of the mission, but the fact that it was captured live on television, with 20 million Frenchies standing by as bullets and bombs flew out the airliner’s cabin doors. The video, which can still be seen on YouTube, is a disturbing and fascinating historical artifact. Leclercq incorporates the footage into the final showdown, cutting between the TV camera exteriors and his own frenzied recreations of what went down inside.

Following the lead of Paul Greengrass’ United 93, the script (co-written with Simon Moutairou) eschews almost all political commentary and gets right down to business, opening with a prologue showing GIGN officer Thierry (Vincent Elbaz) shaken up after a bloody domestic shooting. His wife (Marie Guillard) has a hard time stomaching her husband’s hazardous career choice, and this sets up a rather unconvincing emotional backdrop for Thierry’s next mission: to take down the hijackers before all hell breaks lose.

Which it certainly does. As Leclercq already showcased in his 2007 sci-fi thriller, Chrysalis, he has a knack for capturing close quarter firefights, which are on ample display once the French forces storm the plane. Until then, the story maintains a workable level of tension as it crosscuts between the GIGN’s training preparations, the GIA’s executions of three passengers and a French foreign affairs officer (Melanie Bernier) who goes through kilometers of bureaucratic red tape to try to save the day.

While the French forces, led by the swarthy Denis Favier (Gregori Derangere), often look and act like they’re starring in an army recruitment spot, the terrorists are given more personality. As was the case in United 93, they’re depicted as being fanatically insecure, and clearly unprepared to handle such a mission. The terrific actor Aymen Saidi (Top Floor, Left Wing) gives their leader, Yahia, a sadly fatalistic side that emerges alongside his cold-blooded killings.

Using tons of handheld camerawork by Thierry Pouget (Eden Log) and a color palette that’s desaturated to the point of verging on black-and-white, Leclercq seems to be taking stylistic cues from both Greengrass and Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. Yet without any underlying theme beyond the celebration of France’s military acumen, he resorts to slow motion and gushy music to add a sentimental hook to this impressive – but depthless – exercise in action bravado.

Opens: In France March 9
Production companies: Labyrinthe Films, Mars Films
Cast: Vincent Elbaz, Gregori Derangere, Melanie Bernier, Aymen Saidi, Chems Dahmani, Mohid Abid, Djanis Bouzyani, Marie Guillard, Naturel Le Ruyet
Director: Julien Leclercq
Screenwriters: Julien Leclercq, Simon Moutairou
Producers: Julien Leclercq, Julien Madon
Executive producer: Marc Olla
Director of photography: Thierry Pouget
Production designer: Jean-Philippe Moreaux
Music: Jean-Jacques Hertz, Francois Roy
Costume designer: Muriel Legrand
Editors: Mickael Dumontier, Christine Mucas Navarro, Frederic Thoraval
Sales Agent: Elle Driver
No rating, 90 minutes