(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) If you want a stark illustration of what seventy-five years’ worth of innovation and social changes can do to a medium, have a look at 1928’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc followed by 1999’s Joan of Arc. Both of them are (obviously) retelling of the life of Jeanne d’Arc coming from the French movie industry, both of them looking at the story from various angles … and with vastly different means. The 1927 film is silent, static, black-and-white, heavy on dialogue and focused almost entirely on her trial. The 1999 version, well, comes from Luc Besson with the very energetic directing that we’ve come to expect from him. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that this version is far less religious, with considerable doubt given to the traditional story and quite a bit of ambivalence regarding the role of gods and devils. The surprising cast not only reunites Besson with Milla Jovovich two years after Le cinquième élément, but also brings in actors such as John Malkovich, Dustin Hoffman, Vincent Cassel and Tchéky Karyo. Still, it’s Besson who shines, with spectacular battle sequences and a very modern rhythm to a familiar story. The film, unlike other takes on the story, seldom turns Jeanne d’Arc into a nationalistic symbol—The French royalty and clergy are portrayed unsentimentally, with a cynical approach to the entire affair. Despite some directorial prowess, the structure of the film remains confounding: The multiple false starts at the beginning of the film are near-useless, the middle sequence outshines the rest thanks to its gory war set pieces while the third act undermines Jeanne d’Arc’s legend with a far more contemporary take on the idea of divine possession. The least one can say is that this Joan of Arc is certainly not a boring film … even if I’m not entirely sure it achieves its own objectives.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) There are a lot of things that I don’t really like about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Given that it’s written by Luc Besson, it’s almost a given that the film will be incredibly stupid in some fundamental ways, that it will feature regressive gender roles and bad banter, that it will have more audacity than coherency and that the male protagonist will be creepy in some fundamental way. Bad news: All of this is true for Valerian. Some, but not all, of it can be blamed on the original French comic book as conceived in the 1960s. (Laureline is hyper-competent in the comics, but Valerian is usually far more capable than in the movie.) Some, but not all, of it can be blamed on terrible casting: Dane Dehaas is a good choice for mopey roles, but he’s really not suited to the action-hero persona (and contributes to the protagonist’s creep problem); meanwhile, and surprisingly, while Cara Delevigne isn’t my first choice for anything, she proves significantly better than expected as Laureline. Besson being Besson, the film also does feature a striptease sequence featuring Rihanna that does nothing to calm down any criticism of his dedication to the male gaze. (It’s a significantly useless scene, but, ah, let’s keep it in the movie, OK?) The film would have been significantly better by removing all the so-called romantic subplot between Valerian and Laureline. So: A significantly flawed movie. And yet I don’t care. I’ve been waiting for a sequel to The Fifth Element for decades now, and this is the closest we’ll ever get to it: a visually hyper-dense space opera with far more ideas than it can reasonably address (few things are explained and that’s how it should be), with a peculiar sense of humour, incredible directorial polish, several standout sequences and a conclusion that just leaves audiences smiling. The opening sequence alone, charting the progress of the International Space Station to a planet-sized galactic hub to the sound of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, is fantastic. The opening act’s big action sequence makes little sense if you think about it, but still features things you’ve never seen in action movies. The images of the film are superb, at the cutting-edge of today’s special-effect technology when used liberally. It’s a great science-fiction movie in a light-hearted vein and I’d like more of it. In the meantime, I just like Valerian despite all of its faults.
(In French, Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) I know I’ve seen Léon at least once twenty-some years ago, but I didn’t remember much more than one or two images for it. Count that as a good thing, because it allowed me to rediscover Léon in most of its glory. It’s not a triumph of plotting, but of execution: writer/director Luc Besson’s a flawed filmmaker, but in Léon has managed to play to his strengths such as action, atmosphere and iconic characters, while minimizing most of his weaknesses like stupid dialogues and tiring anti-establishmentarianism. Well, most of his weaknesses, because if you go down the rabbit hole of the movie’s deleted scenes picturing a romantic relationship between the two lead characters and then match that to Besson’s own personal romantic history you will be screaming, “No, Luc Besson, no!” faster than you’d expect. But moving on: Léon distills a strong but uncomplicated story to a few action set pieces and clever character moments. It’s almost uncluttered (save from some oddities such as the shooting-the-president comic sequence), focuses on its better moments and showcases three great actors: Natalie Portman in her screen debut, Jean Reno in what’s perhaps still his best-known role (luckily, he dubs his own voice in the French version), and Gary Oldman in another great role in a long and varied filmography. The action beats are impeccable, and the atmosphere of a bustling but slightly rotten New York City is fantastic. Léon holds up all right, especially considering how often the teenage-assassin idea has been redone since then.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) What a gloriously insane film this is. It’s not even worth being incensed about its use of the widely-debunked “using only 10% of our brains” nonsense, not when the counter keeps going up and the protagonist manages to gleefully ignore the laws of physics. Scarlett Johansson scores (after Her) another captivating performance in a film about the singularity, except that she’s the one going through it an attaining a post-human state by the time the credits roll. This being said, this is a film written and directed by Luc Besson, so it’s no use getting hung up on questions of coherence and subtlety hen he’s far more interested in marrying action-film kinetics with superhero flights of fancy. As a magical drug courses through our protagonist’s veins, the film makes less sense and becomes more fun, albeit in the “I can’t believe someone financed something this crazy” sense of fun. Compared to Transcendence, it’s got 10% of the brains but 100% more dynamism, and that “singularity for dummies” vibe definitely works to the film’s advantage. The directing moves fast (despite not being particularly well-directed –many of the so-called action scenes are a bit generic), and so does the story in an attempt not to have viewers think too hard about what’s happening. It reaches a joyously absurd conclusion with the secrets of the universe being made available on an USB key, but not before a trip back in time for a handshake with our progenitor. Whew! Morgan Freeman cashes an easy check as a scientist who just lectures and sees everything happening, but it’s really Scarlett Johansson who buffers her post-human action-heroine credentials in Lucy. As for the movie, it ain’t too smart, but it’s just crazy enough to work.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) By now, anything with Luc Besson as a screenwriter should come with its own warning: “Stupid stuff within.” The problem isn’t that Besson’s name is usually associated with dumb scripts: it’s that the same issues keep coming back: dumb anti-establishment rants, moronic plotting, blatant misogyny and a striking lack of tonal unity that has the films jumping all over the place. With 3 Days to Kill, writers Besson and Adi Hasak end up reprising the worst aspects of From Paris with Love: no skill in blending comedy with violence, dim-witted characters and plot-lines that would have been laughable thirty years ago. Here, a CIA agent suffering from a fatal disease is manipulated in executing “one last job” while caring for his estranged daughter. What follows is an unlikable blend of torture played for laughs, uncomfortable comedy, fish-out-of-water parenting and a portrayal of espionage that makes James Bond movie feel sophisticated. The film hits its worst moments when it asks us to believe that a character would forget about violent torture in order to help his torturer bond with his daughter… moments after being electrocuted. Such uneasy blend of jokes in-between deathly serious violence show the tone-deaf sensibilities of either the screenwriters, or fallen-from-grace director McG, whose Charlie’s Angels heydays are nowhere reflected in his recent work –it’s not this or stuff like This Means War that make him look better. While 3 Days to Kill does briefly come alive during its action sequences (in particular, a chase sequence besides La Seine), much of the film is just inert, flopping aimlessly and failing to get its audience’s sympathy. Surprisingly enough, Kevin Costner doesn’t emerge too badly from the ongoing train wreck –he’s able to display a certain weary stoicism through it all. Once really can’t say the same about Amber Heard, playing dress-up as a would-be femme fatale when she’s got the gravitas of half a beach bunny. (Her character may be badly written, but the way she plays it make it seem even worse.) It’s refreshing to see Connie Nielsen in a motherly role, but Hailee Steinfeld may want to re-think playing such unlikable brats flouncing without reason. 3 Days to Kill redefines “scattershot” in the way its scenes don’t seem to flow along in the same film, and how it usually privileges the dumb answer to just about any plot question. The predictable plot twists, stomach-churning “comic” violence really don’t help… but what else have we come to expect from Luc Besson?
(Video on Demand, December 2013) Luc Besson’s work over the past dozen years has been frustratingly uneven, so even a run-of-the-mill action comedy can seem like good news. Co-written and directed by Besson, The Family is about an American mob family being relocalized in deep France and dealing with the local elements before facing down retribution from their past. Featuring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones for instant characterization (neither of the three in any way push beyond their usual screen persona, although with De Niro we’re used to the parody aspect), The Family moves along quickly and without a fuss, its comedy occasionally interrupted with a few action sequences. On paper, it shouldn’t work all that well: The paper-thin justification for the premise is weak, the American characters are borderline sociopaths and the third act hinges on a coincidence so massive that the film spends a solid three minutes establishing it. That it does work is a testimony to the talent of the actors, the skill of the director and the unassuming lack of pretension for the entire film. It ends a bit abruptly and leaves many subplots dangling, but The Family seems like a return to form for Besson: Not only is he directing after repeatedly announcing his retirement, but many of his most unpleasant writing tics seem to have been swept under the rug for once. The result is good enough for a few dark laughs.
(On-demand, September 2012) Perhaps the best thing about the digitalization of the filmmaking process has been to expand the scope of small cheap action movies. Add some CGI sequences and a lot of green-screen set extensions to a moderately clever script and suddenly it’s entirely possible to make an action film set aboard an orbital space station in 2079 for a reported 20-million-dollars budget. Lockout’s real asset, though, is the straightforward script: it’s all about action nonsense, and from the very first shot of the film onward, it never apologizes for what it tries to be. Sure, the idea of cryogenically keeping prisoners in a space station is economically ludicrous (albeit justified later on with a bit of Evil Intention). Sure, the idea of sending in a renegade agent to sort the mess is reminiscent of Escape from New York. Sure, the film’s science starts out idiotic and then sinks further in impossibility. But it’s hard to take it as anything more or deeper than a straight-up action thriller. As such, Lockout satisfies expectations: it’s not refined, subtle or even memorable, but it’s got a clever kick to it –but that’s about as much as we can expect from the Luc Besson script factory on good days. It helps a lot that it’s headed by Guy Pearce, temporarily abandoning his dramatic thespian ambitions to deliver a fully-muscled performance as a snarky anti-hero. It’s too bad that the script could have been just a touch better, or the action sequences just a bit more memorable. As such, we’re left with a moderately satisfying thriller: Lockout is exactly what can hit a sweet spot on a rainy day, but not something that people will quote as a reference months later.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) If anyone in the world has earned the right to write yet another female assassin movie, it’s probably Luc Besson. Besson’s not a particularly gifted screenwriter, but as a director he did help popularize the female-assassin stereotype in movies such as Nikita. Colombiana is another riff on a familiar concept: As a young girl’s parents are murdered by a drug lord, she vows revenge and dedicates her life to becoming a killing machine. The story picks up years later as she nears her vengeance. The rest is simply a series of kill-sequences noisily arranged by director Olivier Megaton, from a script by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. While some of their previous collaborations such as Transporter 3 were terrible even by B-movie standards, Colombiana is closer to Taken in understanding the mechanics of the action-thriller genre and delivering the formula in an energetic fashion. It helps that Zoe Saldana has the lithe physique and feral intensity required by the role: Colombiana wouldn’t be as good without her intensely physical performance. The cinematography, at least, is a bit more ambitious than usual and the result is a slick action movie. It may not avoid a bit of stupidity around the edges, but it’s put together with some competence and doesn’t overstay its welcome once the overlong prologue is done. Big guns, big explosions, original executions all point a little bit too much as set-piece-driven carnography, but fans of B-grade action movies will understand the game being played here. The result is potable.
(On DVD, March 2012) Luc Besson’s return to large-scale live-action fantasy after more than a decade’s absence promises more than it delivers. Oh, let’s be fair: The first fifteen minutes of Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec are completely enjoyable: The omniscient narration sets up a charming historical adventure with wit and humor, the fast-paced editing promises a zippy film and the heroine that is Adèle Blanc-Sec seems like a 1910s Lara Croft prototype, albeit funnier and more credible because of her occasional vulnerability. After that, alas, the film gets wildly uneven: Despite the big budget, the historical recreation, the sympathetic protagonist and the odd elements of fantasy thrown in pictures downtown Paris, Adèle Blanc-Sec is constantly undermined by its own script. The subplots don’t merge graciously (an artifact, I gather, of trying to adapt several of Blanc-Sec’s original comic books in one movie), the conclusion gets sillier and sillier, Besson can’t resist his politicians-and-policemen-are-idiots shtick, and every so often, it seems as if the colossal energy invested in the film is at the service of sub-par farce. The film has serious tone problems that make it hard to take seriously as an adventure. Some of the jokes work (I’m fond of the end Louvre/Pyramid gag), but more of them don’t. Too bad, especially given Louise Bourgoin’s charming performance in the complex lead role: Blanc-Sec has to kick ass, tell jokes, makes mistakes, wear disguises, suffer indignation and have some compassion for a paralyzed sister, and Bourgoin seems quite a bit better in doing those things than she script she serves. While the film still has enough of a visual and creative kick to earn a recommendation (especially for Besson fans), it doesn’t quite manage to be as good as it could have been. Besson has announced his wish to make sequels… we’ll see if the market demands it.
(On DVD, February 2012) The most remarkable thing about Angel-A is how atypical it feels when compared to the rest of writer/director Luc Besson’s filmography. You’d have to dig back to the eighties (past the most recent bad action movies and older better action/SF films) to find something like it, perhaps The Big Blue. Angel-A begins by showing small-time hustler down and out in Paris, about to throw himself off a bridge. But then! A mysterious woman appears and forces our protagonist to take control of his own life. The rest of the film unfolds as a black-and-white dream set in picturesque Paris, as protagonist and guardian angel solve their problems and fall in love. Plot-wise, it’s thin. Visually, however, it’s absolutely gorgeous: The black-and-white cinematography is nearly perfect at capturing Paris at its most inspiring, and the fairytale atmosphere helps a lot in establishing Angel-A‘s own reality. In other hands, it could have been a pretentious art-house mess. In Besson’s grip, however, it turns into a relatively entertaining piece of ambitious popular cinema. Hardly perfect, no: the plot contrivances are numerous and those who think Besson can’t quite write female characters will have more material to consider here. Jamel Debbouze, far better-known as a comedian, is a bit of a revelation here as the pathetic protagonist. Unfortunately, Rie Rasmussen isn’t the best choice as Angela; her delivery (in her third language) is mealy-mouthed and her physique doesn’t add that much to the film. Still, Angel-A is a remarkable piece of work for its cinematography alone; Besson fans and detractors owe it to themselves to have a look, if only to show that he can do something else than dumb anti-establishment action-comedies.
(On DVD, July 2010) As a follow-up to the first Banlieue 13, this sequel does the expected: Bring back the lead characters to do the same things again in a slightly bigger context, while avoiding messing too much with the formula. It works decently: David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli are just as great as the action heroes of the sequel, and while there’s a little less parkour this time around, the mix is still heavy in good action sequences. Between a martial arts demonstration in which a Van Gogh painting is used (Jackie Chan-style) as a weapon, a chase sequence in which a character makes his way down from a tall building complex, or a video-game-inspired fight featuring the captivating Elodie Yung, Banlieue 13: Ultimatum delivers as an action movie. Director Patrick Alessandrin keeps control of the mixture, and the budget of the piece only shows its limits in a regrettable decision not to show some of the ending explosions. While Luc Besson’s script is its usual mix of ham-fisted populism, sexy misogyny and thin rationales, there’s something intriguing in the way it sets up a multicultural union of interest against staid reactionary “Harriburton” capitalism. There may not be a whole lot of substance to this film, but it’s got its pulse on significant Parisian social issues. Anyone who liked the first film will feel just as satisfied with the sequel. The Region-1 DVD comes complete with a short but enlightening making-of documentary that highlights most of the film’s high action points, and appears to reflect the fun that everyone had in making the picture.
(In theatres, February 2010) Action comedies are tough to screw up, but leave it to Luc Besson to do his best. Besson’s not know for his subtlety, after all, and whenever he starts writing scripts, one can expect the worst. At first glance, From Paris With Love seems idiot-proof: Match a young bookish secret agent (Jonathan Rhys-Meyer) with a older, wilder operative (John Travolta), add a little bit of terrorism, shoot up everything in Paris and voilà. For a while, it even works: it doesn’t matter if the plot makes no sense from the start: This is an action comedy, and it’s not supposed to. As Travolta grins shoots his way through restaurants without a single care for consequences, it’s almost fun. The occasional meaningless drug interlude aside, From Paris With Love starts as a competent B-grade action buddy comedy. Director Pierre Morel does fine with the action sequences. The film is nothing spectacular, nothing particularly achieved, but well enough to pass the time. But then, and it’s hard to be specific without spoilers, the film truly sours once the third act gets underway: Suddenly, a big pile of drama lands into the film, and no one seems to know what to do with it: it breaks the flow, and sends the plot in another direction. That direction ends up more problematic than anyone could expect, as it lays bare the film’s overall misogyny and makes a repulsive mess out of the conclusion. By the time our two protagonists are back on the airport tarmac laughing and comparing the size of their guns (this isn’t a metaphor, but it could be), it’s hard to avoid thinking that something has gone horribly wrong in the writing stages. From Paris With Love wishes it could get away with just being a forgettable entry in the action/comedy sub-genre. Instead, it’s saddled with elements that go out of its core mission, and a remarkably obnoxious attitude towards women. Can someone stop Besson from writing without adult supervision ever again?