This Air France hijacker thriller is genre filmmaking at its most pleasurably refined.
Taking a leaf out of the Paul Greengrass book of jagged, washed-out realism, French director Julien Leclercq delivers a Hollywood calling card movie par excellence. The subject is the 1994 hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 on the tarmac of Algiers airport by a small but ruthlessly committed cadre of Islamic terrorists, purportedly hell bent on ploughing the plane and its 227 passengers into the Eiffel Tower.
Leclercq navigates up, down and around the various tiers of this real life event with gratifying ease, showing us the harried politicos forced to make snap decisions from plush state rooms in Paris, the belligerent terrorist cell on the plane and, most importantly, the SWAT team who gradually begin to realise that the only way to diffuse this situation swiftly is going to be a dangerous, full-scale ambush on their gun-toting foes.
Photographed entirely in shades of gun-metal grey and gleaning emotion from close-ups of faces rather than saccharine dialogue, the film has a decent clip to it and all the various strands are, eventually, knotted together with great skill and dexterity. Though the film presents the terrorists as borderline insane, Leclercq is careful not to whoop up the violent efforts of the well-oiled SWAT team too fervidly.
Vincent Elbaz as the sad-eyed Thierry knows that this mission can only succeed if he shows great courage in front of his team, a courage that could well have him sent back home in a body bag. The way in which his rabid sense of duty trumps his desire for an easy, comfortable life is not presented as machismo, but more as an acceptance that if he does not give this mission his all, many innocent people could lose their lives.
When the shooting finally starts, the film settles into a fairly drawn-out groove of sundry, loud gunplay, even if Leclercq's treatment of Thierry is both unconventional and shocking. You feel that there could have been a longer, more complex film here, especially as the bureaucratic stratum feels abridged to the point that you can't quite understand why it's been left in the film.
Yet The Assault remains a nifty, terse and unshowy exercise in cut-and-dried action spectacle, and on that level it more than succeeds.
Made in 2010, why has this one been on the shelf for two years?
Genre filmmaking at its most pleasurably refined.
A very robust piece of filmmaking with subtle shades of moral complexity to boot.