On Christmas Eve 1994, an Air France plane carrying more than 200 passengers was poised to take off from Algiers for Paris, but before it could leave the ground, four jihadists hijacked the plane, seeking the release of two of their imprisoned comrades. As you can imagine, the standoff ends with a hail of bullets. Much of France watched from far outside the plane as the tragedy played out on national TV. In his new film, “L’Assault” (“The Assault”), director Julien Leclercq take you inside the plane.
The triangle at the center of the film is comprised of Thierry (Vincent Elbaz), a member of the GIGN (think SWAT) team, who of course has a wife and child and migraines caused by constantly putting his own life in danger; Yahia (Aymen Saiidi), the leader of the hostage takers; and Carole (Mélanie Bernier), an impertinent young French state department specialist who insinuates herself into the strategizing, negotiating and decision-making taking place at a level well above her pay grade.
Leclercq is good at building tension, loading the spring, in the moments before the bullets fly. Things slow down, go silent and fade to black-and-white. But what follows the first deafening crack of gunfire seldom lives up to the suspense. Confronted with the admittedly daunting challenge of choreographing firefights inside the confined space of an airplane, Leclercq can’t seem to find the room to make the screen pop with action.
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What’s most frustrating about Leclercq’s film is that for all the technical skill on display, and there’s a good amount, the film doesn’t seem to have anything new to say. Thierry is your stock white-hat—a stoic family man struggling with the stress of his job, while Yahia is a standard issue spittle-flying jihadi, all too willing to die for Allah. But there’s no real depth to either man.
Carole in the only insightful and dynamic of Leclercq’s characters. She speaks French and Arabic, and seems to at least be trying to understand the motivations and impulses of the terrorists. Unfortunately, this is not her film, as Leclerq focuses primarily on mining the events for the sake of entertainment.
Which would be all well and good if the news wasn’t still being littered with the savage, inexcusable murder of civilians because some moron burned a Koran, or Western governments being afraid to criticize dictators for fear that Muslim radicals will fill their void. The topic is too hot, too fresh, for a simple action film.
"L'Assault" is showing April 28 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival