Thrills, Cheap and Otherwise
There are a couple of movies out at the moment, both of which more or less fall into the thriller category, and both of which may well be worth your time and engagement. One of them is pretty good and one of them is great, and between them they show how you can take the basic stuff of this kind of movie and use it to create something producing distinctive and different results.
James Watkins’ Bastille Day looks very much like an American action movie: it’s basically a buddy film about a CIA agent (Idris Elbas) who teams up with a pickpocket (Richard Madden) to stop various naughty things from happening on the streets of present-day Paris. This involves a lot of chasing about and Elba putting the boot into assorted goons. However, things are not quite that simple, as most of the principals involved are in fact British, and the film itself seems to be a deliberate attempt to ape the style of the thrillers overseen by the prolific French hyphenate Luc Besson.
The pastiche is almost uncannily accurate and the film is a lot of fun, albeit extremely predictable in some respects: Elba is introduced through a scene where a weaselly pencil-pushing superior gives him a hard time for being an insubordinate maverick, and seasoned movie-watchers may well be able to join in as it proceeds. The movie has the smartness and pace of a Besson movie, as well as some of the excess – it opens with as brazen a piece of gratuitous female nudity as you will find in any film this year. A slightly stronger ending and a properly scenery-chewing villain would have made the duplication almost perfect.
All in all it’s an appealing and polished piece of work, although some may have a twinge of unease about any film primarily intended to entertain which opens with a terrorist attack happening in a major European city. I think Bastille Day just about gets away with it, primarily because the film itself isn’t actually about terrorism and doesn’t presume to make any serious statements on the topic. Elba carries proceedings well, and even gets to belt out the song which plays over the closing credits, though how well this film serves as an audition piece for him to be the post-Craig James Bond is probably debatable. He has presence and handles himself well in the action scenes, but I’m not sure he has the lightness of touch needed to be a great Bond in the traditional style. Still, if he can keep making movies like this one, a potentially lucrative and agreeable career on the big screen beckons.
Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky also deals with the issue of terrorism and how we should respond to it, but handles it rather more thoughtfully and seriously. It focuses particularly on the issue of the use of unmanned drones to monitor and respond to potential terrorist threats – a huge and complex topic, to be sure, but one which the film makes painfully immediate by narrowing in on one particular situation and one particular decision.
A group of terrorist leaders are under surveillance in a militia-controlled neighbourhood in Kenya. Initial plans for them to be captured have had to be changed at very short notice. Then, it becomes apparent that the group are preparing to mount a suicide attack, and the only way of stopping them is to attack the house with a missile fired from a drone. However, a young girl is selling bread in the street outside, and will almost certainly be killed if the missile is fired. What would you do?
The complexity of this situation is perhaps a little contrived – US and British citizens are amongst the targets, the whole thing is taking place in a hostile area of a friendly nation, and the change of orders is also a factor – but not excessively so, and it does allow the film to deal with the various legal, political, and ethical ramifications of the situation at length. The result is an incredibly tense thriller which mainly concerns stressed-out people having arguments via a wide range of electronic media as to just what is and isn’t justified in this case. Which is worse, direct responsibility for the death of one innocent, or indirect responsibility for dozens that you could have prevented?
Helen Mirren is the soldier in operational control of the mission, Alan Rickman her superior liaising with a group of politicians about the mission. Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox are the drone operators, while Barkhad Abdi is a Kenyan intelligence agent actually on the ground. All of these people behave like genuine, imperfect human beings, and the film highlights that while modern technology may have made many things easier, it has also made others considerably more complex.
A lot of energetic backside-covering goes on amongst the various political onlookers before any decision is made, but the possibility of the film being biased in favour of the military is nicely defused by a scene in which Mirren’s character effectively bullies one of her team into revising his estimate of civilian casualties down to an unrealistically low level, but one which keeps the missile strike a viable option. No-one gets away clean from this scenario.
This is a powerful film made with subtlety and skill, with many strong performances in it – including the last screen appearance of Alan Rickman, who brings his customary intensity and intelligence to bear. In the end it presents no easy answers, which I think is as it should, for this is a horribly complex issue. It’s a thought-provoking film rather than an entertainment, but for me still probably the best thing I’ve seen at the cinema so far this year.