Action flick Bastille Day opens with a naked Frenchwoman (Stéphane Caillard) strolling through Paris. We soon learn that her nudity is intended to serve as a particularly dramatic distraction, allowing pickpocket Michael Mason (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden) to pilfer a few wallets and passports at the orders of a local fence (Eriq Ebouaney).
With a moment’s reflection, this doesn’t seem like an especially intelligent plan. For starters, if Mason is talented enough – and he is – to swipe someone’s passport from their suit pocket without them noticing, does he really need the folderol with the naked lady? And surely it’s the kind of distraction that ultimately attracts attention rather than deflecting it? This turns out to be the case sometime later in the film, when Mason is identified by the police on a YouTube clip of this modern-day Lady Godiva (with aid from said Ms Godiva, who dobs Mason into the police after being scorned).
Ah, but it turns out that the clumsiness of Mason’s scheme is entirely consistent with Bastille Day’s approach to human nature and, most specifically, the film’s take on political activism. You see, the reason that the cops are looking for Mason isn’t because of his part-time thievery, but because he’s the prime suspect in a terrorist bombing that left a handful dead. The bombing is attributed to our thief in a fairly convoluted sequence of events, involving a hippie activist (Charlotte Le Bon as Zoe Naville), her undercover-cop-who’s-actually-a-terrorist-but-in-any-case-is-pretending-to-be-a-hippie boyfriend, last minute misgivings and an ill-advised bit of impulsive theft.
As the film expands its scope – bringing in “reckless, insubordinate” CIA agent Sean Briar (Idris Elba) to investigate Mason’s involvement in an increasingly-byzantine plot involving corrupt cops, warring intelligence agencies and online activism – it pairs its Luc Besson genre mimicry with a strong dose of cynicism.
That cynicism is kinda charming when extended to its characters; it’s nice to have a pickpocket who’s in it for the money (despite his oft-contradictory explanations about medical school or similar) and a CIA ‘good guy’ whose heart is less gold than solid stone (it’s a buddy movie where they never really even become friends, and I can dig that).
That cynicism is less endearing when it strays into the political realm. Bastille Day jazzes up its mid-‘90s mid-budget action screenplay with pointed, contemporary references to police brutality, economic inequality and social media. The purpose of said terrorist bombing – and I suppose this is a spoiler, but let’s be real, you don’t go to these movies for the plot particulars – turns out to be linked to an implausibly elaborate scheme by a handful of high-ranking police officers to “bring [Paris] to its knees.” After stoking the fires of public anger – with the aforementioned bombing and a staged bit of police brutality – our corrupt cops direct a horde of protestors towards the national bank (“The hashtags will tip it over!”) in order to raid the city’s coffers.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before, of course. From Die Hard to Non-Stop, cinematic bad guys love to abuse the pretence of political terrorism to achieve their own personal goals. And had Bastille Day been content to operate as a silly action movie paying lip-service to contemporary issues, I might’ve given it a pass. I mean, Elba is as charismatic as always (despite playing a character that’s about as easy to dislike as Stringer Bell) while exhibiting sufficient charisma with Madden, and the action scenes are pleasingly ramshackle (particularly an extended roof chase).
But, gosh darn it, Bastille Day just keeps pressing its thumb into these political pressure points with all the nuance and intelligence of Donald Trump. You’re making a fun action film, guys! If you’re going to bring anti-immigrant rhetoric and modern-day activism into it, do something smart with it! It’s disingenuous to suggest that cops need to be motivated by greed, corruption and a complicated scheme to beat up minorities, and its deeply cynical to imagine that thousands of protestors can be lead around by the nose by some random cop with a balaclava and a Twitter account. Bastille Day turns all its political hot potatoes into contrived, ill-conceived plot points and ends up with an overcooked mess.
It doesn’t help matters that the film’s opening scene – remember, the naked lady? – is as emblematic of its approach to women as its tepid plot points. The first act sees three separate instances of attractive young women betrayed or murdered by the men they trust – with another example yet to come in the film’s final quarter – and similarly betrays its actresses with promises of juicy roles that amount to nothing. Zoe – remember, the hippie activist conned into terrorism – should be the film’s most interesting character, but she’s increasingly sidelined by Elba and Madden. Hell, replace Madden’s character with her and you’ve got a tighter script and a far more interesting one.
None of this makes Bastille Day a disaster. It’s an entertaining enough way to spend an hour and a half at the movies. Just … try not to think about it afterwards. Take my word for it.