Tuesday, 6 September 2011

La Professionnelle: Colombiana review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Dir: Olivier Megaton
Stars: Zoë Saldana, Michael Vartan, Cliff Curtis, Lennie James, Jordi Mollà
Running Time: 108mins

Colombiana comes from a long line of movies produced, written or directed by Luc Besson starring a beautiful but damaged woman out to get revenge on those who wronged her. It is, almost unarguably, the recurring theme which has brought him the most success, critically and commerically. Think Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita, Joan of Arc, or more recently, Adèle Blanc-Sec. Naturally, remember also Léon, the movie with which Colombiana shares much in common.

This is supposedly due to the film being based on the Léon sequel which Besson ultimately gave up trying to get off the ground after a succession of struggles, notably the rise of superstardom of lead actress Natalie Portman. It's certainly easy to spot where the two movies mirror each other, especially in the narrative gaps which Besson has clearly had to fill in with near-identical material to make the new story stand on its own. Being so heavily influenced by Besson's best movie pays off, though: Colombiana may feel more than a little derivative at times, but it is also one of the year's more entertaining actioners, driven by yet another powerhouse performance from the wonderful Zoë Saldana and Besson's ever-compelling formula of fierce violence with fractured beauty.
The movie accelerates through much of what it needs to fill its audience in on from Léon during the opening act. The changes are small: instead of being the daughter of junkie parents, as per Léon's Mathilda, Cataleya Restrepo is from altogether more powerful stock, with her father being one of the top men in a Colombian drugs trafficking family. That family take the role of the corrupt DEA agents, who kill Cataleya's parents but allow her to escape to Chicago. She joins up with her uncle, plying a similar trade in the States, whom she informs that she wishes to become a killer. She is then sent to school, leaving her in much the same place before Saldana takes over in the adult role as we left Mathilda back in 1994.

The patched-together nature of the story, taking from chunks of an older movie and fitting them into a new context, betrays itself in some questionable story logic running throughout. Despite all the key characters either being heavily trained or having years of experience in the drugs trade (where you would assume that being careful is the first rule of business), they act without a great deal of consideration for later consequences. In fact, Cataleya herself is at one point warned of what the outcome of her rash actions could be, but she chooses to ignore it, only for those exact circumstances to come to pass. Keeping things moving forward is clearly the first concern, but though the cracks are small, they are enough to make the ride bumpier than it needed to be.

On a bigger scale, the movie is tied together surprisingly efficiently. Yes, the links between certain events are messy, but everything the story puts forward ends up serving some kind of purpose and is given an appropriate conclusion, making for that rarest of things these days: a satisfying ending. Admittedly, there's nothing particularly complex involved - this is an action movie, so a more complicated story would only distract from more important visceral pleasures - but it is satisfying to see narrative basics done properly, making the overall experience more cohesive.

Despite operation on a limited scale, the story is almost entirely focused around Cataleya's character and gains a rare degree of intimacy from that closeness. It helps that Saldana is a more than worthy entrant in Besson's pantheon of formidable women. Though the other actors have nothing but the most basic stock characters to play with (Sam Douglas from Heavy Rain gets a cameo in a similar guise to the sex emperor from Taken, which I hope is going to be a recurring figure in all Besson's movies from now on), she is given a full emotional spectrum which plays to her strengths for conveying just a little vulnerability beneath a rock-hard exterior.

Whether showing how her training holds her back from opening up to her hilariously buff artist boyfriend - whom she mostly just uses for sex and a semblance of intimacy outside her darkness of her family life - as much as she'd like to, or her being hit by the horror of walking into a building filled with people who may have been killed as a result of her actions, Saldana throws herself completely into the character and gives one of the year's more multifaceted performances.

Her training as a dancer also makes her a physically compelling figure to watch slinking across rooftops in a skintight blue catsuit - well, there are many reasons why watching her do that is rewarding, but the elegance of her movement is at least as high on the list as the obvious sex appeal. The slower assassination sequences, where she's either sporting said catsuit or swimming along the glass roof of a shark pool (a scene with its potential danger killed by the obviousness of the computer-generated sharks), consequently feel more exciting and exotic for the mellifluous elegance which the actress brings to simply moving from point A to point B. Rarely has a character felt so defined by her manner of sneaking.

The fast-paced action is more problematic, because director Olivier MEGATON (I hope you shouted that, because it's the only way to read such a name) subscribes to the school of direction that reads confusion and excitement as interchangeable. An early free-running chase sequence would be a lot more thrilling but for the fact that it is cut so wildly as to remove any sense of where the participants are or what they are doing. MEGATON seems to misunderstand that the pleasure of watching free running is based around those very principles, seeing a familiar environment turned into an urban obstacle course, with his reckless cutting and Bourne-esque shaky camera making each shot seem disconnected from the one preceding it.

The same goes for a fight scene in the final act, which should be raw and aggressive - especially in the gloriously mad use of a pair of toothbrushes and a towel as impromptu weapons - but is ruined by camerawork which refuses to let the action do the talking. I realise that being called MEGATON comes with certain responsibilities for loudness, but there's a time and a place for that sort of thing.

The movie never threatens greatness in anything other than Saldana's exquisite showcase, but is a solidly enjoyable actioner enhanced by Besson's more personal touch and a cohesion so often lacking from the genre. It is both exciting in its differences from the usual summer fare and overfamiliar for anyone with even a passing awareness of Besson's previous 'warrior woman' movies. There's even a Xena callback, whose actress Lucy Lawless would have been a perfect fit for a Besson movie - there's still time!

Lacking the iconic weirdness of a Gary Oldman villain or the strange-but-charming central relationship between the assassin and his young protégé, the movie is always several steps behind its spiritual predecessor, Léon, but that's a high watermark which barely any movie, from Besson or otherwise, has reached since. On its own terms, Colombiana is the kind of sexy, fierce fun which make it perfect fodder for Saturday night entertainment.  [ 7 ]


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