[The Assault opens in limited release in the U.S. tomorrow. The following review was first published when the film screened at the Tribeca Film Festival last year.]
Always handsome in its burnished gun-metal and sepia tones, and immediately involving, Julien (Chrysalis) Leclercq's The Assault nonetheless feels like less than the sum of its parts. Based on the true story of a 1994 raid on a hijacked Air France jetliner, The Assault does a nifty job of capturing all the real-world details you'd want in a piece like this, and often employs the close-in, faux-verité style that someone like Paul Greengrass made terrific use of in United 93. The problem is, the ambitious film can't quite decide whether it should be a behind-the-scenes docudrama, a geo-political cat-and-mouse exercise between the terrorists and the French government, or an intimate portrait of one family affected by the crisis. As a result, it winds up being an example of that unfortunate cinematic compromise, the mild, "sensitive" thriller.
To be sure, in the moments before the actual assault, Leclercq and the film's editors do a bang-job of milking the situation for every last drop of suspense. But sadly it's a case of too-little/too-late, especially as the effectively orchestrated firefight is then crosscut with, and undermined by, several repetitive shots of a concerned mom/wife viewing the action on live television (millions of French watched as the events unfolded). "Oh me, oh my!" her expression continually conveys, to the point where things become downright embarrassing. Can those few moments be overlooked? Perhaps. It's just hard when the same character has been accompanied by a teddy bear-toting tyke the entire movie (that's right, a teddy bear) who occasionally asks innocently after Daddy. Such triteness might be bearable in a pulpy treatment of the same general topic--a remake, say, of the old Chuck Norris vehicle The Delta Force--but seems deeply at odds with the smart, A-level production to which The Assault clearly aspires.
The picture is on much surer ground when following the efforts of a resourceful Foreign Ministry staffer played winningly by Mélanie Bernier. Using her knowledge of Arabic to uncover clues about the hijackers' ultimate goal, she comes across as a Jack Ryan-esque figure as if portrayed by a decade-younger Cécile De France: you want her to be the point-of-view character for the entire movie. In contrast with this dimensional character, lead Vincent Elbaz's is no more than a noble symbol; worse still, the attempts to humanize the Algerian terrorists feel like little more than "thoughtful" gestures. We've simply seen too many similar movies--we know, for example, that terrorists might pray before taking action, so such a scene is not as disarming or revealing as it seems to think it is.
Similarly, though it might be unfair to compare The Assault to Olivier Assayas's Carlos, which featured a hijacking as its dramatic center piece, it's difficult not to. Also based on historical events, Carlos's middle act is vivid, evocative, and gripping. Yes, The Assault shares some of those traits, but only for a few minutes at a stretch.