In this year of thoroughly underwhelming franchise blockbusters, I unregretfully did not see the likes of Batman vs Superman, Suicide Squad, or X-Men: Apocalypse, yet even I wasn’t able to avoid disappointment. Possibly the greatest new action franchise this side of the millennium, the Bourne series, came back with its original star and director in Jason Bourne, so it was tipped to be the shining example of an action franchise done right rather than the chaotically wrung together greatest-hits collection that the film ended up being, offering absolutely nothing new to the series nor action blockbusters in general. Fortunately for me, I’d already had my gritty espionage blockbuster thrills from a lesser known, yet more deserved action-thriller Bastille Day.
Although Bastille Day doesn’t feature any memory loss plot-points to shake things up like in Bourne, nor the sometimes tricky story structure, it does similarly have the kick-ass and very physical balls-to-the-wall action scenes, as well as an exhilarating on-the-move story, plus a finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary social activism amongst the general public.
Bastille Day opens up with a scene of a beautiful naked lady walking through a busy plaza, which sounds crude, but ends up showing how such a sensationalist act is just sleight of hand for our pick-pocket ‘protagonist’ Michael (Richard Madden) to rip off unsuspecting and distracted citizens of their wallets and jewellery – such a ripe analogous opening for a movie like this (but let’s not get too deep into it). Unluckily for him, he pick-pockets a planted bomb, which he is pinned for after it detonates and causes terrorism hysteria across France just days before the Bastille Day holiday.
He’s tracked down by CIA’s Sean Briar (Idris Elba), who then uses Michael to track down those responsible for the bomb, who as we see are a terrorist organisation who very sneakily use social media outlets to manipulate public opinion, especially amongst the activists and protestors. Although Madden is playing the unlikely hero (who is more brain than brawn) who must learn the ropes of beating peoples’ heads in as he goes along, it’s Elba and his monolithic presence who leads the film with the assured assertiveness in his physicality and voice, as well as his expertise in beating up any armed forces who gets in his way, showing that he’s itching to expand into other certain espionage film roles.
Given our two protagonists spend a great deal of the movie together chasing down bad guys across Paris (and just a little less time chasing each other), their dynamic together somewhat resembles the archetypal buddy-cop duo. There’s the usual banter between the two, with Michael’s tension-alleviating quips acting up against Sean’s deadpan straight man, but this humour is neither groundbreaking for the genre nor irritatingly unwelcome.
Admittedly, Bastille Day works better at its macrocosms rather than its nuances, with the thrilling action scenes melding in well amongst the clearly presented themes of malleable social activism and big government cynicism. Like Bourne, the action scenes harks back to the days of CGI-less in-camera on-screen biffs, keeping up the adrenaline with a varied array of chase scenes, close-quarters fights and shoot-outs, exhilarating car chases, and even a mixture of the four. This kind of raw and unfiltered action is brilliantly shot (apart from the two or three erroneous GoPro shots), and edited with ferocity, yet clarity.
Bastille Day should’ve been more recognised as the action-thriller of the year, though its release and reception was stifled due to two real-life terrorist attacks. The film’s February 2016 UK release was delayed due to the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, with the film eventually getting an April/May release across many European nations. The decision to release the film in France just before Bastille Day back-fired horribly due to the actual Bastille Day terrorist attack that took place during the celebrations in Nice – the film was pulled from French cinemas soon after, making the terrorists win just that little bit more. It only just had its American release in November 2016, obviously under a new title, The Take, where it underperformed at the box-office and with snooty critics.
It’s unfair that the explosions, fighting, and death that occur in our world have an effect on smart action-thrillers like Bastille Day, but not the even more gleefully and consequence-free violent films like the superhero blockbusters, but it goes to show how timely and socially potent a film like it is. If you’re craving a film from 2016 that was meant to thrill and excite audiences and actually succeeded, Bastille Day may be the anti-franchise piece of work you’re looking for.