Last week saw the home video release of Taken. Luc Besson acted as producer and co-writer on the film, which quickly established itself as a surprise hit. These days, Besson mainly writes and produces film, despite his illustrious career as a director. He’s also written and produced a wide array of action films, including the Transporter series, Kiss of the Dragon, Unleashed, and District B13, among others. Still, outside of Taken, Besson’s work behind the camera tends to be far more celebrated than the films he has produced.
The Films of Luc Besson
|[[image:vs081106_last.jpg:The Last Battle:left:0]]||The Last Battle
Filmed in black and white, with virtually no dialog or music, The Last Battle was Besson’s debut as well as one of the earliest films in Jean Reno’s filmography. The movie itself is an interesting take on post-apocalyptic storytelling, but not as essential as Besson’s later work.
Subway stars a pre-Highlander Christopher Lambert as a man hiding in the French metro system from a gangster he has stolen from. While underground, he finds time to form a band and fall in love with the gangster’s wife. The movie oozes style, even though the music and setting scream 1980s. It’s a good thing that the style of the film is so strong, because I’ve only seen it via a cheapo DVD which was dubbed (horror!) and formatted to pan-and-scan (HORROR!!).
|[[image:vs081106_bigblue.jpg:The Big Blue:left:0]]||The Big Blue
The Big Blue is a movie that sets the stage for much of what Besson would later accomplish — and like much of Besson’s work, it found itself savaged by the critics yet immensely popular with the public (at least in France, where it was the highest-grossing film of the decade). In the U.S. it was a failure, a fact which often blamed on the fact the studio recut the film for US audiences (adding a lame “happy” ending and replacing the score) along with the fact that its pace is fairly languid. The Big Blue is the story of two divers who have been competing with each other since childhood. The backdrop of competitive diving is used to tell a story about one man’s search for what his life means. The underwater footage featured in the film is spectacular.
|[[image:vs081106_lafemme.jpg:La Femme Nikita:left:0]]||La Femme Nikita
Here is the movie that made me a lifelong fan of Besson. The classic thriller La Femme Nikita was remade in America a while back as Point of No Return, but don’t hold that against it. The original follows the story of a woman named Nikita, a dead-end drug addict who is offered a chance at redemption after being sentenced to death: earn clemency by becoming an assassin for the government. This hugely influential French film is notable for its stylish action, its complex themes of redemption and trust, and its fantastic acting. Jean Reno appears in a small role as a “cleaner”, sent in to fix a hit gone bad, a short sequence which led not only to Besson’s film Leon (also known as The Professional in its initial U.S. release and which starred Reno as a shy hitman who makes friends with a young Natalie Portman), but was also paid homage to in Pulp Fiction with Harvey Keitel’s own take on a cleaner character. Interestingly, Keitel plays Reno’s role in the remake, so his casting in Pulp Fiction is a double callback! If you’re someone who likes action movies even a little bit, this film is required viewing.
|[[image:vs081106_fifth.jpg:The Fifth Element:left:0]]||The Fifth Element
Here’s a movie that people find easy to hate. Milla Jovovich’s “innocent being” character Leeloo gets on people’s nerves, and Chris Tucker in this movie is as divisive a character and performance as Ahmed Best’s Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode One. That being said, I adore this movie. Legend has it that Besson started writing the script as a teenager, and it shows. Still, his ultra-stylish take on the future is very appealing, and the over-the-top performances from Tucker and Gary Oldman add to the movie’s strengths in my opinion. Bruce Willis grounds the film by basically playing his stock action-guy character, and is our guide through a completely ridiculous universe. The Fifth Element is super-green.
|[[image:090512_leon.jpg:Leon: The Professional:left:0]]||Leon: The Professional
Leon is a nearly perfect film, the story of a skilled hitman who befriends a young girl when he saves her from the corrupt cop who murders her family. It’s a classic mismatch: the socially awkward Leon at first doesn’t know how to deal with this whirlwind that has entered his life to upset the careful balance of his routine. Mathilda (portrayed by a young Natalie Portman) is the opposite, and once she finds out what Leon does for a living, she demands that he teach her the tricks of the trade. When she decides to get revenge on the man who killed her family, Leon must use all of his skills to rescue her, even if it means going up against the entire police force. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the intense, career-defining performance from Gary Oldman. You do briefly wonder how someone so unstable can be so corrupt and go discovered for so long, but he’s so fun to watch that it doesn’t matter. A while back there was a flurry of rumors that Natalie Portman who portray a grown-up Mathilda in a sequel, but nothing came from it.
|[[image:vs081106_messenger.jpg:The Messenger:left:0]]||The Messenger
A misstep from Besson. The film is very stylishly shot, but portrays a Joan of Arc that is at odds with the historical record and offers motivations for her actions that stray from what we know about her. The cringe-worthy inclusion of Dustin Hoffman as her “conscience,” combined with the miscasting of Milla Jovovich as the title character, make The Messenger the least essential film in Besson’s oeurve.
After a seven-year break from directing, Besson returned with his own take on It’s a Wonderful Life and Heaven Can Wait. In this version, the angel is superhot and the guy she is saving is a self-centered gambler who owes a lot of money to a Parisian gangster. Shot in black and white, it looks gorgeous, but that’s a given with Besson. The story might be a tad cliché, but it’s well told, and overall the film is a nice, romantic fantasy. Perhaps not of the scale of some of Besson’s other work, but a nice little cap on his live action directing career.
|[[image:vs081106_arthur.jpg:Arthur and the Invisibles:left:0]]||Arthur and the Minimoys
Luc Besson’s family friendly CG franchise. Huge in France, a dud here, and ultimately uninteresting. I would much rather Besson work in live action than experiment with animation, especially since this film doesn’t compare favorably to what Pixar is doing .