‘Bastille Day’ Review: A Dumb Action-Thriller

July 14th, 1789 – the date when protesters released seven prisoners from The Bastille, though the French prefer to think about it as the day the people rose up against an oppressive government. Bastille Day also serves as a setting for a silly action-thriller starring Idris Elba.

Michael Mason (Richard Madden) is an American pickpocket living in Paris who ends up becoming the top suspect after stealing a bomb which kills four people. Sean Briar (Idris Elba) is a maverick CIA agent who is transferred to Paris after a mission went wrong in Iraq. Briar is assigned the task to bring Mason in for questioning before the French can, but have to team up when Briar is forced to go rogue as the forces responsible for the attack orchestrate protests and riots across the French capital.

Bastille Day is led by two actors who are touted as potential Bonds – Elba is a leading candidate and Madden could be a good outside bet. Elba has no problem with the action scenes; he is a big imposing figure who has no problem beating people up and Briar’s CIA bosses describe him as reckless and irresponsible, just like a certain MI6 agent. Briar also acts like Jack Bauer, an agent who has to act in a short space of time in a major city and is willing to use threats and violence to extract information while being backed up by people on computers. The scene when Briar questions Mason lets Elba do his best Samuel L. Jackson impression. Despite Briar’s gruff exterior he does have a sardonic wit which helped to lighten the mood.

Richard Madden is fine in his role as a thief with a conscious who gets embroiled in a much bigger event. He has a roguish claim during his early scenes, and he has a trait of smoking a cigarette after a successful job and is shown to be a very resourceful young man. But he is outshone and outmanned when he is on screen with Elba, the Hackney actor having a dominating screen presence and a more fun role then Madden – who had whined about Briar’s method. Madden’s American accent needs a bit of work for future roles.


Bastille Day is the first action movie for British director James Watkins – his previous writing and directing have been in the horror genre. Watkins does a decent enough job – there is a fun chase on the rooftops early on in the movie, and he is able to show Briar and Mason’s observational skills – when Briar is investigating and when Mason he has to come up with quick plans. The fist fights do suffer the cure of a lot of modern action cinema – shaky cam and quick cuts – but it is far from being the worst offender. Bastille Day was edited by Jon Harris, who worked on movies like Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service, which made sure the action was fairly comprehensible. The movie being a spy-action thriller set in Paris with Americans characters made Bastille Day seem like a Luc Besson produced EuropaCorp movie, but the Frenchman filmmaker was not involved.

Where Bastille Day falls flat is on the writing. What possibly happened was that the writer was influenced by 24, Die Hard With Vengeance and Goldeneye and then bludgeoned in the head before writing. The plot is exceedingly stupid. What happens in the movie is that a group of rogue police officers planted the bomb so they could turn Paris into a powder-keg of chaos. When it is revealed as to why they are doing this, it just leads to a groan of despair. It is similar to what happened in the British actioner Welcome to the Punch, where it leads to questions about what the masterminds are actually able to gain considering their positions? It is the type of movie where any logic problems have to be ignored.

There was some controversy surrounding the release of the movie because of recent terrorist attacks in Paris. It’s not the film’s fault; it’s just unfortunate timing. The movie tries not to be political – the far-left and far-right are both used by the actual terrorists to riot and protest, and Muslims are made out to be victims of stereotyping. But the movies tries to have its cake and eat it, by being more sympathetic to left-wing activities: they wanted to avoid killing anyone, while showing the right-wing nationalist party used immigrant labor as cleaners. They also want the audience to cheer both the left-wing activities and Briar as he beats and tortures people to get information. The left wing activities are shown to be wearing yellow smiley masks – most likely because the studio could not get the rights to use the V for Vendetta masks.

The way the French authorities are portrayed is similar to 2008’s Taken where they were corrupt or incompetent. French audiences will laugh and go ‘silly Americans’, or be very offended that their police are so hopeless while the Americans are at worst sticklers for the rules. The French tend to be quiet a proud bunch and do not like it when their nation is insulted.

The most egregious aspect is its opening shot of a naked woman walking around in a public place. It was put in the movie for shock value.

Bastille Day is a very standard actioner that has a good cast, but suffers from the stupidity of its own story and screenplay as it tries to emulate Die Hard, 24 and the Bourne series.

Kieran Freemantle
Kieran Freemantle
I am a film critic/writer based in the UK, writing for Entertainment Fuse, Rock n Reel Reviews, UK Film Review and Meniscus Sunrise. I have worked on film shoots. I support West Ham and Bath Rugby. Follow me on Twitter @FreemantleUK.