DVD Review: THE ASSAULT

On my mark: slow motion! Mute the volume! Blue filters, go, go, go! Julien Leclerq wants to make sure you know hostage crisis docudrama The Assault is serious business, to the point he deploys every trick in his arsenal inside the first few minutes and doesn't let up until the bodies have all hit the floor. This is a brisk, efficient retelling of the 1994 Algerian hijacking of Air France Flight 8969, where Islamic militants from the GIA took command of the plane and would have apparently crashed it into the Eiffel Tower had French special forces not stormed the aircraft on the tarmac at Marseilles.

This gripped the country's attention at the time, given live footage was broadcast on French network TV and that (spoilers follow, I guess...) the plan ultimately went off with barely a hitch. But Leclerq gets so caught up in singing the praises of the GIGN (some of whom served as consultants) he and writer Simon Moutairou - working from a book about the event - can't seem to decide how to handle any dramatic development beyond would-be holy warriors psyching themselves up to kill several hundred people who don't share their faith.

Leclerq's début was the 2007 sci-fi calling-card Chrysalis, and The Assault shares many of the same hallmarks. Sombre hard men (and women) struggle with their emotions while firing heavy weaponry at each other, city backdrops rear up halfway between Michael Bay and a crash course in German expressionism, and the cinematography is bleached so dry it's practically monochrome. The director and DP Thierry Pouget (Eden Log) both have an eye for striking, almost painterly tableaux - some of the individual set pieces would make terrific still frames - but the clumsy storytelling and lack of any real emotional engagement mean the pretty pictures are mostly wasted.

It's difficult to say the filmmakers got things wrong when you weren't there, man, you didn't see shit go down, and they definitely tick off all the salient points. Four armed men from the Armed Islamic Group seized Flight 8969 in Algiers. The Algerian government was unwilling to let France land troops on its soil to resolve the crisis, so the special forces team had to sit this first act out in Majorca. Ultimately the hostages were allowed to leave, though without enough fuel to reach Paris they had to land in Marseilles, where the GIGN stormed the plane before it could be made ready to take off again.

Bizarrely, Leclerq and Moutairou concentrate on two characters who may or may not be real, but do their best to drag any forward momentum down with them either way. Thierry (Vincent Elbaz) is a special forces trooper preparing to head the assault while his wife and infant daughter wait back home, and Carole (Mélanie Bernier) is a Foreign Office employee jockeying to prove herself to the old boys' club in the higher echelons of government as they watch the crisis unfold. Real people or not (the credits claim Thierry was, but, well, Wikipedia doesn't mention him by name at least) both play out like bland, non-committal archetypes at best, frustratingly stupid dramatic devices at worst.

No-one gets anything beyond a cursory introduction, so Thierry's wife gazing tearfully at TV coverage of the standoff seems as uninvolving as the lead hijacker's mother being roped in out of nowhere to try to talk her son down. This is Wikipedia, so take it as you will, but if the Interior Minister says the Algerian Secret Service warned them the terrorists planned to pre-empt 9/11 surely that's more interesting than pretending it was the token angry chick who found out? (Shortly after Carole essentially yelling "Who wants to be kidnapped by armed killers who despise everything I stand for? Oh, me! I do! I do!")  

At barely eighty minutes and change the film spends virtually no time at all on any scene-setting beyond "Angry Moslems are threatening to kill people". Admittedly cheap exposition whacking the audience over the head with lazy symbolism is something no-one really wants to see - sand, palm trees, women in chador and veil et al - but there's no explanation Algeria was in the middle of a civil war, why the Islamist groups were so bitterly opposed to the military government, or even who the GIA really were. Seriously: you don't have to humanise the terrorists to explain this stuff.

The assault itself is fine taken in isolation, a grim little ballet. Leclerq knows how to handle action and works well with the unusual setup where much of the fighting takes place in a confined space, or from camera angles low to the floor. Even here, though, he seems to fumble tweaking history to suit - Wiki says the only commando to suffer serious injuries didn't go down half so heroically, for instance. And there's no mention of the most dramatic development, where the hijackers moved the plane (loaded with fuel) right next to Marseilles airport as a final ultimatum, forcing the GIGN to plan their assault over at the last minute. Perhaps lack of funds put paid to that one?

The Assault is a solid, undemanding hour and a half, but not much more. Leclerq is technically very talented, but on the strength of this he's not much of a storyteller - the film is crying out for another fifteen minutes or so to flesh out the script and hook more than French audiences with long memories. It looks frequently gorgeous, but there's nothing here to grab you beyond the basic gravitas of innocent people in peril and the heroic forces of law and order charged with bringing them back safe - a fun enough ride while it lasts, but unlikely to leave any lasting impression afterwards and as such difficult to really recommend.

THE DISC:

Studio Canal UK's DVD of The Assault, available to buy now, is one of their usual bare-bones home video releases but gives the film a decent presentation despite the lack of extras. The disc goes straight from the Studio Canal logo and the copyright warning to a simple but eye-catching menu with a clip showing the GIGN in training for the operation. Transitions are a little clumsy, but the menus are still easy to navigate. The film has been divided into twelve chapter stops.

AUDIO:

The basic stereo 2.0 track is fine (5.1 Dolby Digital is also available). The Assault shouldn't push anyone's speakers too hard - it's an oddly quiet film, overall, with gunfire frequently muted, a minimal score and the mix deep enough none of the screaming sounds shrill or distorted. Dialogue (in both French and Arabic) is clear and legible. English subtitles are not burnt-in but as usual seem to be non-removable, though they're large and easy to read with only a couple of very minor errors.

VIDEO:

The picture is technically nothing amazing - it's quite soft and doesn't have much detail in the frequent areas of shadow or deep black - but to be honest this helps the cinematography more than it hurts it. The colour balance works well, there's not much obvious banding or blocking and the fantastic visual compositions, like Thierry practising at the GIGN shooting range, still stand out just fine. It's hardly demo material but on a regular screen it more than does the job.

EXTRAS:

The only extra is the trailer, two minutes of laughably blatant re-cutting aimed at making The Assault look like a typical summer blockbuster regardless of what the editors have to do to get there. It doesn't quite sell it as a different film altogether but it twists the facts enough it might well leave something of a nasty aftertaste.

The Assault showcases the very best and, sadly, the very worst excesses of French action cinema - quality production values and an impressive sense of technical craft at the expense of any real depth or emotional engagement. Julien Leclerq doesn't explore the history he dramatises anywhere near enough to make his film stand out, or sell his characters as actual people whether or not they really were in life. Studio Canal UK's DVD is a decent enough presentation, though, and comes recommended if you want to watch the film regardless.

 
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