Those of us who had grown up playing the first person shooter game Counter-strike will be no strangers to the uniform of the GIGN, since it is one of the four outfits that you can select on your character profile if you choose to be on the side of the counter-terrorists. Director Julien Leclercq paid close attention to detail and began with literally a big bang to showcase the capabilities of the GIGN troopers, before saving up the real deal for the extended final act. But that's not to say that the film is a boring ride. On the contrary, Leclercq crafted a gripping tale that moves, probes and examines very quickly how things get to spiral out of control until the inevitable outcome, expertly handling three separate narrative threads running concurrently before finally converging into the titular battle onboard the narrow confines of an aircraft.
The first naturally comes from the perpetrators, the terrorists, their thought process and ruthless action in causing mass panic and fear to further their political cause. Here it's the GIA out to free two of their comrades in Algeria, or so it seems, and had taken an Air France plane at the airport as leverage. But the second thread, focused on Mélanie Bernier's Foreign Ministry analyst Carole in a very Jack Ryan-esque role whose research, insights and gut feel points to a very different strategy and objective adopted by the hijackers, and has to cut through the usual red tape in the administration to push her points through, at times too direct that it irks the brass. And the last narrative thread paints a rather personal picture of GIGN trooper Thierry (Vincent Elbaz), personifying the issues and concerns of those who put their lives on the line to protect strangers, at the risk of upsetting and disappointing their own family members even, who cannot reconcile why they do what they do.
Technically, the film has fantastically strained its colour palette, making it very close to black and white, which I thought suited it fine since it's actually loosely referencing events from history (with the dramatic license for it too I hope) like a documentary, akin to accessing vague memory banks or like watching a news reel unspool - some of the clips that the characters watch from television were the real deal at the time. Then there is the choice of adopting the shaky cam. Now I'm not a proponent for this camera technique because more often than not it gets exploited by the filmmakers to cover up flaws in their work, and am finding it tiring as an audience to try and follow events on screen when the camera moves about almost all the time. It's not to say it cannot be used, because The Assault did it nicely that fit the narrative well, transmitting that sense of urgency and constant danger, helped by a pulsating soundtrack by Jean-Jacques Hertz and Francois Roy.
What made this film excel amongst its peers are the sensitive stories and characters involved in a life and death situation, with viewpoints presenting both in macro and micro terms, the latter allowing you to feel for the characters since it's set up very carefully to allow for empathy. Leclercq does not pull his punches in vilifying the evil doers, with powerful scenes both to evoke a sense of hatred for the senseless violence they preach, and in one potent scene involving a terrorist having to face up to his parents, allowed that slight sliver of sympathy that they are but pawns manipulated by others. It's a little pity though that the socio-political context of the incident isn't covered in the film in detail which may leave some perplexed, and while it may rob The Assault of its pace, may probably enhance the viewer's understanding of the conflict that existed.
As far as police thrillers go, The Assault scores high on both action and drama, providing that unique combination very rarely seen in action films, that allows you to feel for the characters, and appreciate the unenviable task of the special forces in the respective countries constantly training and prepping to deter any would be aggressors, but when the time calls for it, to swing into action unflinchingly. Tactics and weapons on display in the film also provides ample fuel for fruitful post screening discussions. Definitely one of my favourite films this year!