As fans continue their push for Idris Elba to fill Daniel Craig’s 007-sized shoes, they could point to far worse case studies for his suitability than “Bastille Day.” The hulking East Londoner may sport a Generican accent as a rogue CIA agent in James Watkins’ efficiently entertaining terrorist thriller, but in all other respects, he proves himself fighting fit for action-franchise duty: gravelly enough to lend this absurd Paris-set romp some gravitas, though he can wink and kick ass at the same time. While the pic pairs him with an affable partner in “Game of Thrones” alum Richard Madden, the standard-issue script doesn’t give their burgeoning buddy dynamic much kindling; instead, it’s Watkins’ lean, keen instinct for choreographing and cutting action set pieces that keeps “Bastille Day” afloat. Even if auds don’t exactly storm the gates, it’ll march on in ancillary.
Mere months after the tragic events of last November, it’s hard to gauge how viewers will respond to a narrative that pivots on a fatal bomb attack in central Paris. While the bilingual film hits U.K. screens on April 22, audiences will have a couple more months’ distance to place between life and art in co-producing territory France, where it’s slated for release, logically enough, on the eve of Bastille Day in July. Accidental topicality, however grim, didn’t much dent the international gross of the recent “London Has Fallen” — like “Bastille Day,” a shoot-’em-up in which it falls to an indomitable American to get Europe out of a significant security pickle. Happily, Watkins’ film isn’t quite so crass about it. No administration emerges wholly covered in glory here, though Elba’s lone-wolf agent — “reckless, insubordinate and irresponsible toward human assets,” as the script hoarily informs us upfront — pretty much does.
“The hard-headed cop who doesn’t play by the rules” could hardly be a more familiar character type, though in casting Elba as such, “Bastille Day” smartly capitalizes on the popularity of his small-screen “Luther” persona — and takes full movie-star advantage of his imposing physical presence. “Have you seen yourself?” sputters small-time thief Mason (Madden) when Elba’s iron-armed agent Briar demands to know why he evaded capture. The smaller man has a point.
Mason, however, has (even) bigger problems to contend with than Briar’s manhandling. A troubled Vegas-born runaway who survives as a nimble-fingered pickpocket on the Parisian streets, he gets more than he bargained for when he lifts a handbag off distressed young radical Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon): The bag contains a bomb, intended for the headquarters of France’s right-wing National Front, that leaves four civilians dead when he unwittingly tosses it on a busy Pigalle sidewalk. Suddenly, this small-potatoes criminal is the object of a nationwide terrorist manhunt. Enter Briar, bullishly heading a secret CIA investigation separate from that of the French interior ministry — which is just as well, since it turns out the latter is improbably embroiled in a supersized conspiracy, shakily orchestrated around the city’s Bastille Day celebrations.
As both agent and his dirty quarry become French police targets, then, they’re forced to collaborate. Watkins and his co-writer Andrew Baldwin have some fun exploring the law-serving potential of Mason’s refreshingly old-school criminal know-how, notably in a witty, gliding sequence that sees him extract vital information by invisibly playing a handful of bar patrons against each other.
Watkins, who impressed with his nasty, lo-fi horror debut “Eden Lake” in 2008 before moving on to the less distinctive genre stylings of 2012’s Daniel Radcliffe vehicle “The Woman in Black,” stages such modestly scaled tension scenes with impressive care and fluidity, defying the restraints of an evidently tight budget. Shot with no-nonsense clarity by d.p. Tim Maurice-Jones, a sustained chase across the French capital’s steep, knobbly rooftops doesn’t aim for the hi-octane spectacle of Bourne or Bond; rather, the focus is kept on the perilous physical trickiness of the course, the participants’ feet sliding and clattering to breath-pausing effect. Even more constricted set pieces are executed with clean spatial logic and coherence: A pummelling punch-up in the back of a police van, edited with rattling precision by Jon Harris, shows up the blurred, blender-style cutting prevalent in far pricier Hollywood actioners.
For all the elegant functionality of its craftsmanship, the human element of “Bastille Day” falls short. Diverting as its various good-cop-bad-cop face-offs are, the film doesn’t give viewers much reason — beyond the easy, almost incidental charisma of its leads — to care who’s left standing. Supporting players are particularly ill-served by the get-the-job-done scripting: Kelly Reilly, given such a gutsy showcase by Watkins in “Eden Lake,” is called in for a colorless favor as Briar’s by-the-book CIA superior, while even the pic’s villains in high places run low on French flair.
At least the contrastingly genial approaches of Elba and Madden keep us on side — the former all sandpapery attitude, the latter puppyish and slippery-sweet, both creditably auditioning for higher-risk assignments. Even Elba, however, isn’t cool enough to pull off the film’s incongruously naff closing-credits tune: a cheerily dated, Fatboy Slim-produced lounge number over which Elba sheepishly husks, “It’s the road less traveled if you come for this ride.” 007 producers, your consideration is hereby invited — though maybe look elsewhere for the next Adele.