Terror in Paris, pigs in birdland
‘You were coming after me. Have you seen yourself?” So says pickpocket Michael Mason to CIA agent Sean Briar, explaining why he ran away from him. Anyone watching will have no cause to wonder what he means: Briar is played by the tall, muscular English actor Idris Elba, putting in another athletic, menacing and witty audition for the role of James Bond. It’s an exchange typical of the terrific dialogue in James Watkins’s Paris-based crime thriller Bastille Day, and also underscores the great chemistry between the stars, Elba and handsome Scottish actor Richard Madden, best known as Robb Stark in the television series Game of Thrones. Before we go on, I’d be as happy as anyone to see Elba with a licence to kill but my 007 vote goes to his compatriot Tom Hiddleston. If you haven’t seen him in the recent TV adaptation of John le Carre’s 1993 novel The Night Manager, do so before marking your ballot paper.
English director Watkins had a hit in 2012 with the period horror movie The Woman in Black, starring a post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe. Bastille Day deals with more contemporary terrors, ones that are heavy in mind, especially in Paris following the terrorist attacks there in November that killed 130 people. The ignition here is a bomb inside a teddy bear. It goes off at Place Pigalle, killing four people. It was discarded there, beside a rubbish bin, by Madden’s pickpocket, inside a bag he stole from a young woman. The woman, Zoe Naville (Charlotte Le Bon), had intended to plant it at the headquarters of the right-wing National Front but changed her mind when she saw cleaners still in the building.
The bombing scene is particularly effective, not least because it is so ordinary. This is the world we have become used to. The pickpocket, who is American, becomes the chief suspect, caught on street security cameras. A left-wing group claims to be behind the blast and vows to “bring the city to its knees” in the 36 hours until the Bastille Day holiday. But are bank-hating leftists really responsible for this, or are Muslim terrorists? Or someone else altogether?
All of this brings the CIA agent into the action. His internal report describes him as “reckless, insubordinate and irresponsible towards human assets”. Whether we believe this or not, he does seem to be on the ethical margin, a bit like Idris’s superb TV detective Luther. His job is to find and interrogate the American bombing suspect before the French do. The French have their own plans, which are integral to the plot.
What follows is a drama lifted by an entertaining script, old-fashioned action scenes and a few surprising twists. Big Elba chasing not-asbig Madden over slanted Parisian rooftops is wonderful to watch. No Jason Bourne here, just desperate men scrabbling over loose tiles and scaring off roosting birds in the way. “Are you in love? Are you writing a novel?’’ Idris asks on pinning down his quarry. “What the f..k are you doing in Paris?” In another engaging scene the pickpocket shows his captor how he does his trade. This is a slick, clever film, and while viewers will work out who the real baddie is before the end, Elba and Madden invest their characters with interesting unanswered questions.
Director Watkins does the same with broader questions about the fragility of our consciousness in times of terror. He doesn’t push it too far — this is an entertainment-first, Friday night film — but there’s enough to think about afterwards, as you head off in search of a shaken martini. I laughed more during The Angry Birds Movie than I have at any film for a while. My 10-yearold co-viewer, who also had fun, later said it was because the main character, a no-nonsense bird named Red, was like me. I’d like to think he was just referring to Red’s thick black eyebrows, but I suspect there’s more to it than that. “Pluck my life,’’ Red declares when he is sent to anger management classes following his rash behaviour at a young bird’s hatch day party. Understandable rashness, I declare! I best not mention the knockout scene where he responds to a kid bird kicking a soccer ball against his house …
This film is based on the globally successful Finnish smartphone game that won fans young and old. It’s the first-time feature of directors Clay Katis and Fergal Reilly, both long-time studio animators. And that experience shows: the animation is excellent, down to the detail of the birds’ feathers. “They just walk around naked?” Red says of the visiting (and evil) pigs, in another intemperate but accurate outburst.
The game basically involved firing birds from a slingshot to demolish buildings occupied by pigs. That certainly comes into play in the highstakes climax, but the directors and screen- Bastille Day; writer Jon Vitti have created an interesting story first. Red is a bit of an outsider on Bird Island, though he makes friends in anger management classes with fleet yellow Chuck, explosive black Bomb and huge, taciturn Terence, who is also red. The actors behind these birds are Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride and, in an awesome bit of casting, a gruffly silent Sean Penn. Running the calm down class is Matilda (Maya Rudolph), and she has serious issues.
When the bright green pigs, led by hipster bearded Leonard (Bill Hader), arrive on the island by boat, declaring it’s time to “join hoof and wing”, only Red is suspicious of their real motives. He may have read George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The result is a battle, first with the pig-accepting other birds and then, gloriously, with the swine. Possibly central to the outcome is the mysterious Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage), a reclusive bird who alone has the ability to fly. The long scene when Red and his cohorts first meet Mighty Eagle is hilarious in an unexpected way. “He’s kind of a wackadoodle,’’ is the avian assessment, “but it doesn’t mean he’s not wise.”
There are also a few cinematic spoofs for the older viewers, such as a brief riff on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but I laughed more at the juvenile jokes. This is a fun film for kids, but it also bends the rules just a little in favour of its hot-headed — and noble-hearted! — main character.
Idris Elba as CIA agent Sean Briar, left, and Richard Madden as pickpocket Michael Mason in a scene from below, Chuck and Red on the beach in The Angry Birds Movie