There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about British actors playing Americans, after all - by now they’ve pretty much all done it. But it is a little weird when (a) every single one of the film’s American characters are played by Brits, and (b) none of them actually need to be American for the story to make sense. In fact, in Bastille Day, the fact that all but one of the Americans also work for the CIA only adds to the mystery, given the film's set entirely in Paris, has nothing to do with America and any other spy agency would have made as much, if not more, sense.
Still, Americans they all are and - to be fair - they do a fine job playing them.
Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) plays Michael Mason, a gifted American pickpocket who steals and then discards a bag from an anarchist bomber’s naive girlfriend Zoe (the delightful Charlotte Le Bon), unaware that it contains a powerful explosive. When the bomb goes off killing several French citizens, Mason is presumed to be a terrorist, and - for no particular reason - the CIA decides they want to nab him before the French do. Sent in to retrieve him, then, is the gruff, burly and comically maverick agent Sean Briar (Idris Elba), whose ’to hell with protocol’ attitude is so inexplicably extreme it borders on parody. When Briar realises Mason is innocent, the pair teams up to track down the real bombers before they can carry out their final objective: setting Paris ablaze with race riots to provide cover for a daring robbery.
Filmed on what appears to be a shoestring budget, director James Watkins (also British) manages to keep the pace snappy and the action altogether interesting enough to gloss over most of the threadbare plot. The film's rooftop chase sequence would feel comfortably at home in any Bourne movie, while a close-quarters fist-fight inside a minivan provides Bastille Day's most inventive and engaging scene. In all, everything has a real Luc Besson feel about it, but not in the good way. Secondary characters are just caricatures, the violence is hyper-stylised and rarely believable, and what little dialogue there is tends towards corny cliches. Bastille Day also contains perhaps the greatest line of instantly-dated script ever recorded, with one of the villains saying (without a single shred of irony): "The hashtags will tip them over. Release the final hashtag”.
Much has been made recently of Elba’s potential selection as 'the next Bond', and this film certainly does nothing to harm his action man credentials. Elba is a giant, unstoppable juggernaut whose impressive physicality imposes itself in every scene. When asked early on why he ran from Briar, Mason’s reply of “because you were chasing me. Have you seen yourself!?” is as amusing as it is fair. Still, it seems a waste to squander all this acting talent on a film that asks so little of its players and gives so little in return.