A rickety, post-Bourne spy thriller, The Take (a.k.a. Bastille Day) operates on pure cynicism. Disgruntled Parisian cops try to fake a Bastille Day terrorist attack to cover their robbery of the French National Reserve. The plan goes awry when their leftist fall girl, Zoe, loses the bag to an American pickpocket, Michael, who in turn becomes the prime suspect when it goes off and kills four people. This being the War on Terror, the CIA naturally muscles its way in, sending in agent Sean Briar (Idris Elba) to sort out the mess.
The film (which was delayed after last year’s Paris attacks, then pulled from theaters this year following the Bastille Day attack in Nice) has little regard for authority. The rogue cops are utterly capricious: though their initial plan called for no body count, the news their distraction caused bloodshed is met with barely-contained delight–all the better to stoke racial/political tensions and cover their tracks. Higher-ups are either corrupt or ineffectual bureaucrats. While the script attempts to paint the antifascist protesters that emerge as gullible buffoons, playing to the cops’ game, it’s still clear the villainy lies with those wielding power. Even Briar, with star-billed Elba, seems more a complication than a lead. The film introduces him as a specter, his reflection in a window emerging from the night skies over Paris. He’s resentful, even independent enough to disobey the odd order here or there, but still a willing cog to the surveillance apparatus. When the fight editing settles enough to allow coherency, we even see he’s mechanical in his approach, assessing threats by danger and immediacy (when a couple goons drop a tear gas grenade in his safehouse, Briar kicks it aside rather than run out like they expect). Elba doesn’t even play him as a hero, so much as ceaseless worker.
Briar’s function seems more to steady Michael and Zoe. The former spends the film attempting to save his own skin, cowering around corners and dashing away (when not doing some sleight of hand). He acts only out of self-interest until persuaded otherwise. Michael’s interaction with Briar amounts to a 48 Hours riff, bickering and insulting one another before arriving at a mutual respect. It doesn’t quite work, though, because the tension is more contrived. Michael might be a crook, but his petty theft only incidentally crosses paths with Briar’s world policing. The film’s real other half is Zoe: a conscientious, leftist radical, opposed to the very intelligence apparatus Briar represents, she is the foil The Take needs. For her own (somewhat inadvertent) part in the deaths which kickstart the plot, she feels sorrow and grief. It’s being tracked, and antagonized, by the ceaseless Briar which galvanizes her to act (a more brave film would have cast an immigrant in the role, given the way France’s issues with Algerian migrants and Islam are gestured at throughout). She even gets the one true hero moment: her CIA comrade outflanked in a gunfight within the Reserve, Zoe immediately rallies protesters (manipulated into providing distraction for the would-be robbers) to storm the building, jumping headfirst into a throng of riot police with “Storm the Bastille!” The human deluge that results breaks the conspiracy. A shame she’s relegated to crying on the margins for most of the film, then dropped in its denouement.