The tense buildup to a blazing, if generic, rescue is the most satisfying part of “The Assault,” a stylized combo of action and drama from Julien Leclercq. Helmer’s second pic (after “Chrysalis”) is based on a 1994 story that foreshadowed 9/11, in which Islamic terrorists hijacked a plane from Algeria and planned to fly it into the Eiffel Tower. The ordeal ended at Marseille airport, where the aircraft had to refuel and a French Special Forces unit became involved in a spectacular shootout. March 9 release should do well locally, with ancillary pickups likely.
Leclercq hits the ground running, opening with an unrelated operation staged by the GIGN, the special intervention division of the Gallic Gendarmerie. Filmed with twitchy handheld cameras, this early assault is an initial indication of the style in which the eponymous final conflict will be shot, as shallow depth of field and extreme closeups make it hard to get a handle on spatial relationships and such vital information as who’s shooting whom from where.
Pic proper starts on Dec. 24, 1994. Four members of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, led by Yahia (Aymen Saidi), board an Air France flight in Algiers ready to depart for Paris. Their plans to hijack the Air plane are revealed before takeoff.
Alongside the increasingly violent goings-on inside the aircraft, initially kept on the ground in Algiers, two parallel stories unfold in Paris. Thierry (Vincent Elbaz), a member of the Gendarmerie involved in the opening attack, is shown interacting with his wife (Marie Guillard) and little daughter (Naturel Le Ruyet). At a higher level, a French Interior Ministry worker, Carole (Melanie Bernier), feels she has to prove herself to her superiors; as she demonstrates in a foolhardy but brave early field operation, Carole is not only arrogant, but also bolder and more intelligent than most of her male colleagues — and she speaks Arabic. Pic’s restless Paul Greengrass-like filming style informs even these scenes of domestic bliss and corporate rivalry, making it clear these protags will soon find themselves in harm’s way, and keeping tension appropriately taut throughout.
The three storylines converge as the news of the hijacking reaches Carole’s superiors at the ministry and the GIGN is asked to prepare for an assault on the plane as soon as it lands on French soil.
Leclerq has no time for the specifics of the French-Algerian conflict that influenced the case, or for pragmatic details (what did the hostages eat for the 39 hours the ordeal lasted?). Instead, he quickly cuts among the severely streamlined storylines until the violent confrontation in the bloody 20-minute finale. Still-chilling TV footage from the time, showing the exterior of the plane as the cops attacked, is deftly integrated into the mise-en-scene.
Leclercq tries to compensate for the lack of backstory by casting easily recognizable types. The physically imposing yet genial Elbaz would make a great basketball-team captain but comes up short as a fearless GIGN killing machine. Bernier fares better as the stubborn Carole, and Saidi is surprisingly effective as the headstrong but nonetheless insecure terrorist ringleader, especially in a pivotal scene with his mother (Zorah Benali).
Pic has a desaturated look, with colors so washed out at times it appears to have been lensed in black-and-white. A shot of the black-clad GIGN boarding the white stairs to the aircraft is striking, but Leclerq isn’t interested in lingering on pretty pictures or holding any shot longer than is strictly necessary.
Sound design is crisp, and production design thankfully keeps most of the Christmas decorations offscreen.