Mason (Richard Madden) is an American pickpocket working the streets of Paris. One night, he steals a bag from a woman, and after finding nothing valuable in it, leaves it in the garbage. Unfortunately, it turns out that the bag contained a bomb. Hotheaded CIA agent Briar (Idris Elba) is newly transferred to the Paris office, and is put in charge of tracking Mason down. When it becomes clear that Mason doesn't actually have anything to do with the bombing, Briar employs his help to figure out who is actually behind the terrorist action. They soon uncover a complicated plot to sow chaos in Paris leading up to the Bastille Day celebrations.
The film gets stupider as it reveals more and more details about what’s actually going on. Without giving too much away, part of this plot involves the villain saying, “Release the final hashtag.” In general, the movie struggles with realistic depictions of current technology, the final MacGuffin a completely ridiculously piece of digital contrivance. Putting technology aside, this is a pretty bad script, filled with clunky dialogue that has characters openly stating their intentions to no one in particular.
It really struggles in the details. Briar is very much in the mold of the lone wolf cop who likes to work outside the system. But there are points where it feels like his hotheaded behavior is a plot device rather than a genuine character trait. There are points in this film where it would make much more sense for him to go back to base with the information he has, and allow the full resources of the agency to tackle the oncoming threat. But of course, he doesn’t do that. That would be too easy. It is generally easy to root for these renegade characters, but Briar takes it to a point where one might actually root against him.
But the film is occasionally fun. It stages a couple of really entertaining scenes that offers strong action on a budget. Seeing Mason deploy his skills is kind of thrilling, and a later scene that has him using his criminal mind to extract vital information is really well put together. The action scenes are edited a little choppily, but there is merit in their construction. The film starts with a breathtaking chase on Paris rooftops, before sticking to physical struggles in confined spaces that really take advantage of the imposing size of its lead star.
Idris Elba is fun to watch as the CIA heavy. His raw physicality drives this character, the action already implied in the way that he walks toward somebody. And Richard Madden is perfectly charming as Mason. The film doesn’t really work as a buddy cop movie, though, as the script doesn’t provide an interesting relationship between the two. The power dynamic never shifts, and Briar’s near-criminal behavior doesn’t provide enough of a contrast in approach. The supporting cast doesn’t make much of an impression, the fringes populated with paper roles that don’t offer much opportunity for delivering flair.
Bastille Day is a dumb, fun action movie, in that order. Dumb wins out in the end, and kind of overwhelms the fun at crucial moments. But it will sate the hunger of those looking for brutal fistfights inside moving vehicles, or those just looking for Idris Elba walking menacingly toward people. It would be a stretch to call this a good movie, or even a solid one. But it is equally difficult to deny it of its pleasures.