Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Luc Besson’

I don’t know about you, but I often come across things that look toweringly silly and almost indisputably a Bad Idea, and the question that inevitably comes to mind is ‘How on earth did this ever happen? Who thought this was in any way a good idea?’ All this shows, of course, is the strangeness that hindsight sometimes lends. Right now, at this moment in time, the idea of an $85m, all-star retelling of of the story of Joan of Arc, starring Milla Jovovich, co-written by the screenwriter of Slade in Flame, and directed by Luc Besson, sounds like an unstoppable disaster in the making. But people clearly thought otherwise in 1999, when such a film was made.

messenger

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is… well, I’m tempted to say that it’s exactly what you’d expect from a Besson-helmed historical drama, but one of the things I’ve found myself coming back to again and again recently is how frequently your expectations of Luc Besson turn out to be misguided. This is the film which effectively put a stop to Besson’s late-90s career as someone with serious clout in Hollywood, and was indeed followed by a five-year gap in his directorial career, and – possibly this is hindsight again – neither of these things is really a total surprise.

The film is, obviously, set during the Hundred Years War, when the English were doing their best to take over France (I don’t see the problem with this, but Besson clearly feels differently), with things not going too well for the home team. The opens by introducing us to the young Joan (Jane Valentine, who’s actually pretty good), a young girl who is clearly in the grip of some kind of religious obsession, going to church several times a day and claiming to hear voices.

An attack on the village by marauding English soldiers results in the death of Joan’s sister, who gives up her hiding place for Joan, and she is understandably left traumatised, struggling to understand why God would permit this to happen, and why she should be spared and not her sister.

Some years pass before Joan, now in her late teens, presents herself at the court of the French Dauphin (John Malkovich), asking to be given an army so she can carry out God’s will and give the English the kicking they so clearly deserve. The court are, understandably, dubious, but they’re out of other ideas and Joan does seem to have a strange, otherworldly quality. And so she is given an army, and sent off to lift the siege of Orleans, not yet suspecting that she is an idealist in a deeply political world…

This is a long film (though not, perhaps, quite as long as it sometimes feels while you’re actually watching it) and almost Kubrickian in the way it naturally falls into a number of episodes, each with its own tone and style. Some of them are, needless to say, better than others, and none of them are really what you could call great. The opening sequence, with the young Joan having her first visions, is one of the best, with Besson conjuring up a real impression of ecstatic religious mania, as well as suggesting some serious issues such as survivor’s guilt.

Of course, the thing which sets the opening apart is that it doesn’t feature Milla Jovovich, and if you had to identify one thing that really scuppers The Messenger it’s the casting of Jovovich in the lead role. Joan of Arc runs a very broad gamut of emotions in the course of the film, at various points appearing as an innocent warrior, a holy fool, someone who experiences the heights of joy and the depths of horror and self-doubt. Jovovich’s performance largely consists of rolling her eyes a lot and squeaking. A goldfish at the bottom of the Mariana Trench would be less out of its depth than Milla Jovovich is here.

This is a bit of a shame, as – while you could hardly describe The Messenger as a completely coherent film – there are a lot of other things to enjoy here. Parts of the film are recognisably Bessonian in their stylish excess – the English soldiers are presented as enjoying a spot of casual necrophilia – and when the lengthy battle scenes get under way, you do get a sense of a director back in his comfort zone. There is a lot of mud, and crunch, and gore, and what they perhaps lack in scale they make up for in viscera. Even here, though, there’s a thin line between grisly, authentic spectacle, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the film is often closer to the latter than is perhaps comfortable.

Here and elsewhere, many fine actors from many different countries do their best to try and make up for the Jovovich deficit: Vincent Cassel, Tcheky Karyo, Richard Ridings, Timothy West, Faye Dunaway, and many other familiar faces. There is an authentic touch of the medieval grotesque about much of the film, and this extends to the performances too. John Malkovich, on the other hand, is at his most John Malkovichy as the aspiring king of France, who isn’t exactly sympathetically presented by the film (I suppose French film-makers will obviously have a different attitude to their royals than British ones).

Then again, it’s very hard to sympathise with Joan herself, though this is largely down to the Jovovich effect. What really doesn’t help is a conceit where Joan’s growing self-doubts manifest in the form of a shadowy figure with whom she engages in deep philosophical discussions about her beliefs and motives. He is played by Dustin Hoffman, who is obviously pretty good, but given all the eye-rolling and squeaking he’s acting against, an idea which could have seemed bold and imaginative just comes across as bizarre and even silly.

This is a slight shame, as Joan’s wrestling with her self-doubt (realised through the metaphor of the Hoffman character) really makes up the climax of the film – the concluding bonfire isn’t really dwelt upon, possibly wisely, but this does rob the film of a strong finish. One is left with a sense of a very odd film. In many ways this is a film which was ahead of its time – it anticipates the historical-combat-movie revival spawned by Gladiator only a year or so later, and attempts to say things about the uneasy alliance of politics and religious zealotry in wartime (topical indeed). It may ultimately be a failure, but you can’t fault its ambition.

 

Read Full Post »

This is going to sound weird – and, more than likely, it is weird – but I’ve been thinking about films which, whatever their running time may be, are most associated with a single iconic image. Sometimes this isn’t even in the film itself – and sometimes the image is much more famous than the film itself. I imagine most people in western culture are familiar with the image of Marilyn Monroe on the grating in the white dress, or Raquel Welch on the lava flow in not very much rabbit-skin, but I would also go on to venture that many of these people might struggle to name The Seven Year Itch or One Million Years BC.

I am the kind of person with the kind of brain where, once I hear a piece of information like that, it sticks with me. But sometimes the single-picture principle still applies. What’s brought all this on is recently watching Luc Besson’s 1985 film Subway – yes, it’s another Luc Besson review – for the first time. This is a film I’ve been aware of for a long time without ever actually seeing; I vaguely recall its first TV broadcast in the UK about a quarter of a century ago, remember seeing it in various arty video rental shops (remember those?), and so on. And the film is always advertised with a single, striking image: a dyed-blonde, shock-haired Christopher Lambert in a tunnel somewhere, dressed in a tuxedo, casually wielding a flourescent light tube as though it’s a lightsaber. I bet it’s on the actual film poster. Let’s find out:

subway

Well, you see what I mean. I must confess I didn’t expect Isabelle Adjani to be quite so prominently featured, but she is very photogenic, after all. There’s something strikingly odd and atmospheric about that photo of Lambert and his tube, and it perhaps creates a false expectation of what the actual movie’s going to be like – something very visually inventive and intense.

The actual movie opens with a knockabout car chase through the streets of Paris between Fred (Lambert), an enigmatic young man, and some other guys in tuxedos. This concludes with him driving his car down the steps into a metro station and taking refuge there. It transpires that Fred is some sort of loveable pathological safebreaker and has just blown up the vault of a rich man whose party he has been attending. He has nicked a lot of valuable documents in the hope of selling them back for a substantial sum of money.

The situation is somewhat complicated by the fact Fred has developed un thing for the beautiful young wife of his victim, Helena (Adjani), and would quite like to see her again. And so he attempts to romance her, while striking up a relationship with a bunch of other unlikely characters living in the subway system and avoiding the police and various agents of his victim.

The first thing you notice about Subway is that this was clearly the film to be in if you fancied moving out of the Francophone movie business and appearing in mainstream American movies in the mid 80s: quite apart from Lambert, who by this point had already made Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan and was a year away from his signature role in Highlander, and Adjani (less of a crossover star, but still appearing in Ishtar and Diabolique), the film also features substantial appearances by Jean-Hugues Anglade (later to turn up in Killing Zoe) and a young and beefy Jean Reno (Leon, the first Mission Impossible, and the 1998 Godzilla, to name but three). There’s even a semi-acting appearance by Eric Serra, who’s best known as a film composer these days (various other Besson movies and GoldenEye).

Then again, this is a Luc Besson movie, and his films have nearly always had at least one eye on the international mainstream. This is Besson near the beginning of his career, and you can almost sense that this is the work of a guy in his 20s (he was 26 at the time) – the film is vibrant with a restless, unfocused, extravagant energy. While some elements of the plot suggest a homage to French New Wave cinema, the film’s debt to American cinema is almost too obvious to need mentioning – this felt to me to be very much like the kind of low-budget punk-inflected movie coming out of Los Angeles at about the same time, and various aspects of it make it hard to believe that Besson hadn’t spent a few evenings watching and rewatching The Warriors.

The crucial difference, for me, is that films like The Warriors had a very definite sense of what they wanted to be – they were unapologetic genre movies, in short. The Warriors is an action movie, whereas Subway is… well, it’s a bit unclear. There’s a car chase, and someone gets shot at one point, and there are various scenes involving police, but on the other hand there are various light-hearted scenes, and at one point even a musical number… it’s trying to be all sorts of things, and not unsuccessfully, but one gets a sense that the plot and characters are secondary to visuals and imagery and colour.

And it’s not quite as dark or stylish as that photo of Lambert and his tube might lead you to expect. At one point it looks like the film’s about to develop into a quasi-fantasy about a hidden world of unlikely characters living out-of-sight in the underground – a more mundane version of Neverwhere – but it never quite follows through on this, and the most improbable thing you see in the course of the movie is Jean Reno in an explorer’s outfit and pith helmet, playing a full drum-kit on a subway platform (which is admittedly still fairly improbable).

All-in-all I found it a hard film to really come to grips with. If this is, as everyone claims, part of the cinema du look (or possibly cinema du Luc, in this case), then perhaps its not surprising that three decades later that look is a bit less striking. Or perhaps it’s just that I am a sucker for a film with a little bit more substance than this one. It’s a fascinating movie to watch, given how the careers of many people involved have developed, but I don’t think anyone would honestly claim it as a career high.

 

Read Full Post »

For a long time there was a disquieting rumour that the directorial career of Luc Besson had some kind of self-imposed limit: Besson having decided as a young man that he was only going to do a certain number of movies and then quit the business. Thankfully (for I always find Besson’s movies to be interesting and entertaining), this idea seems to have been abandoned, and indeed – after a fairly long stretch between 1999 and 2010 where his only credits were for the oddball Angel-A and a couple of children’s films – Besson seems to be back in the saddle with something like his old regularity.

As a writer and producer Besson is known for a seemingly-endless stream of efficiently barmy action movies, but his work as a director seems to be moving in a more challenging direction. No film is actually easy to make well, but a narrative-driven genre movie is certainly a less daunting prospect than a metaphysical examination of the human condition. For me it is telling that one of Besson’s more recent producing credits is for the environmentalist documentary Home, which certainly leans in this direction, and it may perhaps give us a different perspective on his new movie Lucy.

lucy

The film opens somewhat unexpectedly with some cells replicating via the wonders of CGI, followed by an equally CGI ape-creature going about its business in the ancient past. But from here we go to much more familiar territory for Besson-watchers, as we meet Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), a young American woman apparently studying in Taipei, although it has to be said neither script nor performance are really convincing on this point. Lucy’s sleazy boyfriend co-opts her into making a delivery to Mr Jang (Choi Min-Sik), yet another of those terrifying Asian gang-lords who are such a frequent figure of the Besson canon. The delivery turns out to be of a mysterious new drug, and Jang expresses his gratitude by having a packet of the stuff surgically implanted into Lucy’s gut so she can carry it through customs for him.

However, Jang’s staff are not quite up to speed on the plan and prior to taking Lucy to the airport decide to have a bit of fun with her. There is a scuffle and the packet bursts, flooding her system with the chemical, the main function of which is to massively increase brain function. The film would have us believe that most people only use 10% of their brains, but in Lucy’s case this figure begins to spike dramatically.

According to Lucy, using more than 20% of your brain actually gives you superpowers: the ability to disregard pain and fear, in the first place, but then fearsome bodily co-ordination, the power to manipulate electromagnetic fields, and then more and more cool stuff as time goes by. There is always the danger your body will spectacularly disintegrate, apparently, but the cool stuff surely makes this risk worthwhile. Lucy decides to make use of her new powers by flying off to Paris, where she can find leading brain expert Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). Always assuming Mr Jang doesn’t catch up with her first, of course.

There may be some elements of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon in this scenario (Everyperson has their intellect massively boosted), but the most recognisable elements of this film are resolutely old-school Besson: the ass-kicking heroine, the Asian gangsters, the world-weary French cops who show up towards the end. On the other hand, the film rockets off into some very weird areas unlike anything Besson’s really touched since The Fifth Element, and he himself has described his ambitions in making it as a mixture of Leon, Inception, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. So perhaps the polarised reviews and general bemusement which have greeted Lucy are understandable.

Some people have treated Lucy as either a straight thriller or a superhero movie with philosophical ideas above its station, but I think this really does it a bit of a disservice. Right from the start the film is rather adventurously directed, with the opening sequence – Lucy being taken by the gangsters – intercut with thematically-relevant stock footage of cheetahs hunting a gazelle. Even after this, the plot about Lucy and Mr Jang is interspersed with scenes of Morgan Freeman delivering a preposterous bafflegab lecture, which most often consists of his narration playing over cod-profound images of wildlife and nature. It’s like a strange mash-up of Nikita with Koyaanisqatsi or Samsara (indeed, footage from Samsara turns up) – but then that’s really what Lucy is.

That said, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss Lucy as a routine thriller with dollops of added pretension: I got the distinct sense that Luc Besson wanted to deliver a film about the nature of being human and our place in the world, but decided to make it a bit more commercial by adding a few gun-toting gangsters into the mix. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s utterly ridiculous – at times Lucy plays like an absurd deadpan comedy. It’s hard to express just how wacko Lucy gets in its third act without spoiling the plot, but it is waaaaay out there.

Certainly, as an action thriller Lucy isn’t going to supplant Leon in anyone’s top ten, though this is mainly a function of the plot rather than anything else: Lucy’s powers develop so rapidly that the other characters lose the ability to realistically threaten her very quickly, though for form’s sake there is a massive gun-battle near the end of the film. This was a bit disappointing as I would have enjoyed seeing Johansson take out a few more vanloads of goons.

On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson gives a seriously impressive performance – rather better than the film strictly deserves, if we’re honest. Her fear and distress in the opening sequences (I feel obliged to mention that these do border on the misogynistic, but I expect Besson would defend them by saying they just increase the impact of Lucy’s ultimate transformation and empowerment) are replaced by a superhuman detachment and intelligence, but there’s also a moment where she tries to describe her expanded perceptions to her mother which is genuinely moving. Perhaps most impressive is her ability to deliver some of Besson’s vaultingly silly and pretentious dialogue with an impressively straight face – though this is also true of Morgan Freeman, and the scenes near the end where the two of them earnestly debate the nature of reality while a full-scale gang war rages in the next room are cherishable.

As you can probably tell, I did enjoy Lucy rather a lot: to be honest, the combination of highbrow philosophical SF and old-school action movie tropes doesn’t quite work, and the movie grows increasingly absurd as it goes on, but I couldn’t help but enjoy its ambition. It is an incredibly ambitious film, conceptually, and if it occasionally doesn’t hit the targets it sets itself there is a lot of entertainment to be had along the way. And you have to admire Luc Besson’s drive to keep doing new things – this certainly isn’t his best film ever, but it’s probably his craziest, and that’s an excellent second-best.

 

Read Full Post »

Now, I would obviously never suggest that the filmography of Luc Besson is either formulaic or repetitive – oh, hang on, yes I did – but the man has a reputation for making a certain kind of film: loud, slick, violent thrillers, which combine impressive levels of excess with carefully modest budgets. The thing is that while this sort of thing may form the main revenue stream of Besson’s Europacorp, for most of these films he confines himself to the role of producer or writer. Luc Besson the director is a rather less predictable figure.

This is a guy with both a biopic of a Burmese politician and a major Hollywood fantasy blockbuster on his CV, after all, although to be fair probably his most celebrated films (Nikita and Leon) are both stylish, violent thrillers. It’s as if this kind of material has a magnetic attraction for Besson he can’t quite shake off, no matter what the film he’s trying to make is.

angel_a_ver3_xlg

Which brings us to 2005’s Angel-A, one of the more eccentric entries in the Besson canon, and a fairly obscure one for Anglophone audiences – most Besson productions are in box-office friendly English, but the films he directs himself are often in French, and this is one of them. It’s in black-and-white, too, which only adds to the sense that this is a self-consciously arty production.

Jamel Debbouze plays Andre, an ill-favoured low-life residing in Paris, who’s going through a bit of a crisis: he’s hugely in debt to several local gangsters who are running out of patience with him. Not happy with constantly being beaten up and dangled off the Eiffel Tower, he seeks help from the US Embassy (he apparently has a Green Card, not that this is really central to the plot) and the Parisian police, but no-one is willing to help him.

Finding it all a bit too much, Andre resolves to kill himself by jumping into the Seine, but upon clambering onto a bridge he is put out to discover someone else already there, apparently with the same idea: Angela (Rie Rasmussen), a strapping young woman if ever there was one. Of course, Andre finds the idea of Angela committing suicide shocking – sorry, I know you’ve probably heard this one before – and dives in to save her when she actually jumps.

The growing suspicion that we have parted company with anything resembling the real world is only strengthened when Angela declares that, as Andre saved her life, she will now do absolutely anything he asks of her, and if that includes helping him clear his debts, so be it. Of course, Andre’s growing feelings for his odd new companion are bound to complicate matters – to say nothing about the mystery of Angela’s own background.

Hmmm, I find myself in an odd spoiler?/non-spoiler? quandary. The very title of the film, together with its obvious references to It’s A Wonderful Life, don’t make it particularly difficult to guess Angela’s secret (Besson’s fondness for compositions where she appears to have wings is also a bit of a giveaway). So is the eventual revelation that she is, in fact, one of your genuine angels actually meant as a plot twist? It’s hard to tell: the film is so arch and knowing that one almost gets the sense Besson expects the audience to be in on the gag.

In any case, Angela is a very Bessonian angel: Rasmussen towers over Debbouze, is fearsomely blonde, and spends the entire film either in her underwear or a strikingly short skirt. Besson’s women, for the most part, turn out to be ass-kicking supermodels and there’s a sense in which that happens here too. The difference is that this is by no means a ‘straight’ thriller, but – well, there’s a question. What kind of film is this, anyway?

Luc Besson is really known as a genre film-maker but Angel-A seems very keen to ignore any notion of genre entirely. Obviously it’s on one level a fantasy (one of the lead characters is an angel, after all), but in parts it is romantic, dramatic, and comic. I have to say that for me it worked better as a comedy than anything else – Debbouze and Rasmussen make an engagingly odd pair as they wander, usually squabbling, around Paris, and there are some gently amusing moments scattered throughout the film (I was never genuinely in danger of laughing, though). But, for the same reason, the romantic chemistry which is supposed to materialise between them never quite put in an appearance.

And when Besson puts in a moment of genuine, character-based seriousness, it just feels a bit odd in such a studiously non-naturalistic film: it’s like cutting from a screwball comedy to Leaving Las Vegas. There’s perhaps a sense in which Besson may be deliberately playing games with the audience’s expectations – a sequence which at first looks like Besson objectifying women in a drearily familiar way ultimately turns out to be something rather less tacky, if somewhat preposterous – but in the end it just feels like this is a film which doesn’t know what it wants to be.

It’s not actually a chore to watch, though, even it’s never in much doubt that this is an exercise in the employment of style rather than substance. In the same vein, the film looks rather fab thanks to some crisp black and white cinematography. But for Angel-A to really grip an audience and work as a story, it would need to have some genuine heart, soul, and humanity about it. And it doesn’t: it just has Luc Besson playing new versions of some old riffs, not to mention some mildly clever tricks on audiences familiar with his work. In the end Angel-A is just a bit too self-indulgently cute to succeed.

 

Read Full Post »

Ho, hum: time to catch up with another One That Got Away from earlier in the year. I can’t, off the top of my head, recall exactly what else was out at the same time as James Mather and Stephen St Leger’s Lockout that was more of a priority, but I’m guessing it was something like The Avengers or The Cabin in the Woods. I don’t recall this movie having a particularly lengthy theatrical run, anyway, which is hardly a surprise given it’s very obviously an off-the-peg genre movie, possibly made more enticing by the fact it’s another product of Europacorp (aka Luc Besson Inc.). The film’s claim to be based on ‘an original idea by Luc Besson’ caused much merriment at the time, as – so it was claimed – Luc Besson has clearly never had an original idea in his life. A little harsh, I think – but then again I am an unrepentant Besson fan.

Anyway, Lockout sees the maestro making a rare venture into full-on sci-fi. Guy Pearce plays Snow, a CIA agent of the year 2079. We immediately see that Snow is a) a hard case and b) a smart-arse, as demonstrated by an opening scene in which he is relentlessly beaten about the head but continues wisecracking regardless. Snow is in the frame for the sale of secrets, and due to be packed off to prison. However…

The prison in question is MS One, a maximum security prison in Earth orbit. (Yes, just settle back and let the silly preposterousness of the whole thing wash over you like a wave of fudge sauce. Mmmm!) Therein, super hard-cases are kept in suspended animation for the duration of their sentence (which inevitably leads one to ask… no, just sit back and savour the fudge. Mmmm!). Anyway, paying a visit to MS One is the daughter of the US President (the comely Maggie Grace, rapidly becoming a Besson rep company member) – unfortunately, while she is there, there is a security issue resulting in all the prisoners being defrosted and the staff (and herself) being taken hostage.

So, inevitably, Snow is offered a deal whereby he will infiltrate the prison and rescue the first daughter. He agrees, but he has an ulterior motive: one of the other inmates has information which may allow him to clear his own name…

There is obviously a sense in which Lockout is a movie which you have already seen before – possibly many, many times. Do I even need to list the donors which contributed to Lockout‘s premise? We can start with Escape from New York and Die Hard, and work our way down past Con Air and many others. Now, you’ll probably respond to this in one of two ways: with a sigh from the depths of your soul and a cry of ‘Oh God, not again!’, or with a strange sense of cosiness, and inexplicable confidence that genre rules are going to be well and truly respected.

I am in the latter camp, obviously: of course you know that the guys at the top of the situation are going to prove to be useless donkeys, that the leading lady is going to be threatened with all kinds of horrors (none of which will actually get visited upon her), that there will be chemistry between the two leads ultimately building up to the promise of whoa-ho-ho, that minor heroic characters will improbably sacrifice themselves, that the villainous roles will be performed in an arguably overenthusiastic manner, and so on. But it’s a genre movie and so these sorts of things are only to be expected. It’s not the ingredients, it’s the recipe, anyway.

That said, Lockout (a fairly inexplicable title) is a compromised movie in all sorts of ways. The basic structure is fine, along with most of the production values – but it’s afflicted with the same sort of heftless CGI sequences which I had such a problem with in Iron Sky, amongst others. The effects sequences set on Earth – in particular a bike chase – are painfully unconvincing, too.

The meat of the movie is the prison-riot-in-orbit stuff, which is mostly okay – I was irked by the repeated use of captions to identify locations and characters, which I found somewhat excessive, but amused that space is apparently under the jurisdiction of the LOPD (that’s the Low Orbit Police Department) – but the movie is bookended by a subplot about Snow being framed for the murder of a friend, secrets being sold, a traitor in the CIA, and so on. This is much more complicated than the main plot but only gets about 15% of the screen time! It is, of course, just a plot device, but that doesn’t mean it has to be quite so muddled.

However, I am prepared to cut Lockout a tremendous quantity of slack just because of Guy Pearce’s performance as the hero. Pearce is one of those actors who’s had a pretty good career without headlining that many major movies – checking his filmography I discovered I’d seen many more of his films than I thought I had, but usually ones where he’s in a supporting role some way down the cast list. Here he is the leading man and gets the tone of his performance exactly right for this sort of film.

Pearce smart-arses his way through Lockout and appears to be having enormous fun – he’s not too bad in the action sequences, either. He is helped by a script which is extremely good at coming up with decent jokes for him to deliver – such as when Grace’s character reveals an unexpected proficiency with automatic weaponry. ‘I thought you were a Democrat!’ cries Snow in surprise.

Well, maybe the jokes aren’t that great, but Pearce sells them well, and both they and he are really better than a film like Lockout honestly deserves (the same could probably be said of Vincent Regan’s turn as the chief bad guy). As a result, Lockout is more than just the production-line piece of hokum it probably should be. Not much more, to be honest, and I’m not sure SF is really Besson’s thing, but enough to make it a fun, if undemanding, watch.

Read Full Post »

Vengeance is ridiculous, more like. I remember when the word ‘prequel’ was new-minted and interesting – these days, it seems like nearly every mainstream movie out there is a remake, a sequel, prequel, a reboot or a ‘re-imagining’. And yet none of these words are quite right for this movie, which nevertheless feels terribly familiar. I fear we will have to call Colombiana a re-jiggling.

This riotously silly and overwrought action movie is brought to us courtesy of co-producer/writer Luc Besson and his favoured proxy du jour, Olivier Megaton. When Besson’s last movie came out I made various cracks about how formulaic and repetitive his output has become, with the immediate addendum that the movie in question was actually a real and positive departure for him. Colombiana is very much in the same vein as the rest of his English-language output these day (put it this way, for a producer whose company logo features a lot of dolphins and fairies, there’s an awful lot of full-auto action and cranial splatter in Besson’s movies).

Opening in a Colombia which is depicted in a not-at-all stereotyped fashion, we meet Don Fabio and Don Luis, a couple of cocaine-dealing drug barons. After they declare undying friendship it comes as no surprise when Don Luis has Don Fabio and his entire family blown away (the reasons why are not made entirely clear, but it’s hardly out-of-character). But Don Luis’s guys have made a mistake in sparing Don Fabio’s young daughter, Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg), as she does a runner and takes refuge with her uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) in Chicago. When Uncle Emilio asks what she wants to be when she grows up, Cataleya shyly reveals that she used to want to be Xena: Warrior Princess (a particularly impressive ambition when you consider this scene is set three years before the character was created) but now she wants to be a hired killer. Pausing only to shoot up some passing traffic, Uncle Emilio agrees to support his niece in her chosen career. As you would, obviously.

Many years pass and the now-grown Cataleya (Jason Statham – no, only kidding, it’s Zoe Saldana from The Smurfs 3D Avatar) is keeping herself busy sneaking into jailhouses to assassinate prisoners in custody and feeding other bad guys to their own pet sharks. Her problem is that Don Luis has dropped out of sight, courtesy of the CIA, and by leaving her mark on the bodies of all these dead guys she’s hoping to get his attention. Unfortunately the FBI are also taking an interest (not entirely surprisingly given she seems to be offing someone every couple of weeks), and the special agent in command (Lennie James) is closing in on her…

Well, what can you say about Colombiana? Cripes. As Besson connoisseurs will already have twigged, the plot is in large part a retread of that of Leon, albeit considerably extended and with a very different ending. Leon is a genuinely great movie, almost certainly the high-point of Besson’s career, and the similarities here are so close sometimes that Colombiana never really establishes its own identity.

Part of the problem is that Besson himself is a much better director than the people he retains to do that job nowadays – not only is Olivier Megaton no Luc Besson, he isn’t even really a Louis Leterrier (one of his predecessors as a Besson protege). He can’t direct a fight scene to save his life, for one thing, his constant cutting and camera movement completely obscuring what the combatants are actually doing to each other. Perhaps a name change to Olivier Milliton may be in order.

That said, the first act of this movie is vivid and exciting and even unexpectedly moving in places, but unfortunately it’s all downhill from this point. I fear much of the problem lies with Zoe Saldana as the central character: she doesn’t seem to have either the charisma or the acting chops to convince – scenes where she has to display raw, uncontrolled grief just seem slightly amusing. There’s also the fact that this is a film about a woman who’s really seriously messed up, horribly brutalised by childhood trauma and trapped in a cycle of violence as a result. This is quite a dark core for a movie, but it never really comes to grips with it, nor does it seem to want to, even when the plot sort of demands it.

Instead we just get lashings of the usual frothy and excessive Besson nonsense, although in a slightly grittier style than in some movies. The story itself is not great this time, though, and the film-makers have to do the equivalent of popping the bonnet and whacking it with a spade to keep it going at at least one point in the proceedings. You also wonder if Besson and co-scripter Robert Mark Kamen actually bother to read their scripts back before issuing them – one priceless moment has the chief evil henchman making a big speech to his minions, telling them how supernaturally stealthy and unpredictably subtle Cataleya is in her assassination technique, which is immediately followed by her firing a rocket launcher at them.

I was trying to explain the output of Besson and EuropaCorp to my mother while we were watching The Transporter together (don’t ask) and she asked if it was a brand rather like Hammer horror – and it seems to me she was pretty close to the truth there. In both cases we’re talking about a very distinctive house style and heavy reuse of the same plot elements and cast members. I’m a Hammer fan and a Besson fan, and the fact these movies are formulaic doesn’t bother me at all – it’s a bit like the blues or punk rock, originality isn’t essential as long as the people involved take it seriously and have real commitment.

I enjoyed Colombiana rather less than I have most of Besson’s output, mainly because it’s not quite up to scratch when it comes to script, performances, or direction: everyone involved seems to be on autopilot. The shadows of other better Besson movies hang over it more heavily than usual, too. Still, look on the bright side: no doubt there’ll be another very similar movie from the same people along in nine months or a year and there’s every chance that one will see them back on form. Or, to put it another way, better Luc next time, I hope…

Read Full Post »

 List of things you expect to find in a Luc Besson movie:

  • cynical mercenaries with violent pasts discovering their humanity
  • implausibly evil gangsters
  • lots of guns going off
  • Jet Li and/or Jason Statham breaking out the martial arts action
  • heinous overacting from the bad guy
  • attractive young women threatening to urinate on the floor in public
  • Milla Jovovich

 List of things you don’t expect to find in a Luc Besson movie:

  • underplayed wit
  • touching exploration of the nature of sisterly love
  • prehistoric monsters crapping on people
  • comedy-relief CGI undead
  • cameo appearance by Bob Monkhouse

I don’t know, I think we may be doing ol’ Luc a disservice. It’s not that the movies he’s been orchestrating for the last decade have actually been bad (I myself have cheerfully rocked up to see all three Transporters as well as the films he’s done with Jet Li) but they’ve been utterly unpretentious exercises in no-frills action moviemaking. In the light of that, it’s easy to forget that as a director Besson once enjoyed considerable critical acclaim in both Europe and the USA. His 1994 movie Leon is currently inside the Top 40 of the iMDb’s all-time great list, which surprised me, but only a little as it is a genuinely terrific thriller as well as a character drama.

Of course, following Leon Besson seemed to blow it by trading in all the capital he’d accrued by making The Fifth Element, an SF epic that managed to seem incoherent and overblown even by the standards of the late 1990s. And since then he seems to have concentrated on his producing and scriptwriting, which is rather a shame as he surely has more to offer than the kind of guilty pleasures that have generally been the result.

Signs that Besson the director may be making a comeback come with The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, an adaptation of a French comic book (or whatever they call it over there) which features none of the stuff from the first list and nearly everything off the second (no sign of Bob Monkhouse – but realistically, I think that boat has sailed).

For the second time in recent weeks I find myself attempting to precis the plot of a French movie in such a way as to not cause others to doubt my own mental stability. Do they put something in the water over there? Boy. Anyway, Louise Bourgoin plays the title role, as a journalist-stroke-adventuress in 1911 Paris. After her sister is critically injured in a freak tennis accident, Adele Blanc-Sec does what anyone would do in the circumstances and sets about discovering the tomb of the personal physician of the Pharaoh Rameses II. This is because she plans to use the psychic powers of an academic friend of her to resurrect the mummy in the hope he will be able to use his skills to help. However, the academic in question decides to practice his resurrectionist abilities by causing a pterodactyl egg to hatch in the local museum. The pterodactyl runs amuck in Paris and accidentally causes the death of a politician in somewhat compromising circumstances, making the execution of her cunning plan that much more complicated. Some days nothing seems to go right…

(I watched that movie Sicko in which Michael Moore said all kinds of nice things about the French healthcare system. There was no mention of people having to engage in necromancy just to try and fix sporting injuries. Someone’s not being completely honest here.)

The story as the film tells it is a good deal more convoluted than I’ve probably made it sound, with many key details kept back until quite late on. Despite all this, the story is always quite easy to follow, despite the fact that it’s completely insane. This is part of the film’s charm, which is considerable.

At heart this is a comedy, and quite a broad one, but handled with a verve and lightness of touch that makes it seem effortlessly sophisticated rather than crass and silly. Louise Bourgoin gives a star performance as the endlessly resourceful and (it seems) utterly fearless heroine. Nothing seems to throw our girl and her understated responses to the bizarre situations she ends up in are utterly winning. It does not take a genius to foresee a strong possibility of Bond Girldom in Bourgoin’s future, a position in which she will surely garner great attention and be horribly underused.

Most of the other characters are comic grotesques played under layers of prosthetics: none moreso than Mathieu Amalric (seeing as we were speaking of the Bond franchise), who has a fairly small role, given he’s second billed, as some sort of arch-enemy of Adele’s (it’s a little unclear whether the end of this film is genuinely setting up a sequel or just aping the tone of the source comics). Unlike in most Anglophone comedies I’ve seen recently, however, most of the performances are actually funny.

This film doesn’t have quite the sheen and polish of a genuine effects-led blockbuster, for all that it clearly aspires to be one, but it’s well made with great sets and costumes. The special effects are occasionally a little rough around the edges, but forgivably so considering just how ambitious the script is in places. It’s only really an unreasoning dislike of subtitles that could stop anyone from enjoying this as a great piece of family entertainment.

(Well, I suppose some people could conceivably object to the brief and discreet sequence in which Louise Bourgoin – how can I put this delicately? – gets ’em out. I can think of no other reason for the film’s 12A certificate in the UK, anyway. Nevertheless, given the context, if I were Louise Bourgoin I might object to the implication that my breasts were unsuitable for family consumption. Possibly not grounds for a legal challenge to the BBFC, admittedly.)

Anyway, this film doesn’t show Luc Besson quite back on top form but it’s great to see him doing his thing again, especially in such an idiosyncratic way. It clearly owes more of a debt to the style of The Fifth Element than Leon or Nikita, but don’t let that put you off. For someone occasionally criticised for mindlessly aping the style of Hollywood cinema, Luc Besson has made a film it’s impossible to imagine being made anywhere else than France, and he’s done a good job of it. Bravo, Luc! Keep ’em coming. Don’t be un etranger, d’accord?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »