Essential cinema 1: Luc Besson

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.

[[image:vs081106_subway.jpg:Subway:left:0]] Subway

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.

[[image:vs081106_angela.jpg:Angel-A:left:0]] Angel-A

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 .

19 thoughts on “Essential cinema 1: Luc Besson

  1. Funny, your description of Leon: The Professional sounds vaguely similar to The Transporter, which you mentioned in the intro.

  2. The Professional is one of my favorite movies ever, but I also really liked the Messenger (though most people I know who saw it didn’t). Part of it was the characters: I loved how every knight had such a distinct personality. Joan herself is portrayed as kind of crazy, ecstatic – but could a 15th century woman whose father was a farmer end up donning armor and leading armies to battle do so by sitting around being demure and calm? But I also liked the whole internal dialogue with her “conscious”. There are times that it is over the top, and some of the events in the film are borrowed from later hagiographical retellings of her life (her finding the sword, identifying the disguised king at court; but what Joan movie doesn’t do that?), but the questions asked are not anachronistic. While strict Catholics might take issue with the doubts Joan had about her own mission, her voices, etc., these were questions that posed very real problems back in the late Middle Ages. They were asked not just by theologians, but by saints themselves (canonized or not). How do you know those voices in your head are from God and not the devil for instance? And the question of humility was crucial: if you are chosen by God, how do you spread His message without falling to the sin of pride for being chosen?

  3. Huge fan of both Leon and Fifth Element here. The Messenger suffered from that unique director’s illness, “I’ll Cast My Wife In This Film-itis.” Works for the Coens and not many others.

  4. I have never found a person that hated the Fifth Element, but I could understand why someone would. Personally I love the movie. It’s a fun ride from start to finish with great visuals and a good soundtrack. With all the other stuff Hollywood is rehashing these days I think its about time for that Leon/Mathilda sequel.

  5. My wife hates The Fifth Element, actually! She thinks it’s dumb and hates Jovovich’s voice and manner. And Chris Tucker.

  6. Besson is pretty great, and if you dig him you should check out the other Cinema Du Look directors, Carax and Beinex. To crib from action button, Diva is some kind of white hot movie miracle.

  7. Oh, and I hate The Fifth Element, too. It still blows my mind that there are people out there that like it, but hey, that’s the internet for ya.

  8. Sorry I’m posting, like, 3 times in a row, but The 5th Element is just really SPECTACULAR visually (which is saying something all by itself, considering how much boring, ineffective CGI goes into movies nowadays), and is on top of that an inventive, smartly cynical vision of the future — with the possible exception of the Matrix and (definitely) 12 Monkeys, I can’t, offhand, think of a better sci-fi picture produced in Hollywood in the last couple of decades.

  9. Not a huge fan of The Fifth Element, but I give it a pass-and own it!-because it is such a distinct vision. We certainly won’t see anything like it in a long time-Trek 11 and Terminator 4 have done a fine job of killing any hope for intelligent scifi from Hollywood.

  10. I’m sure “Chickaaaaan goood!” “Multipass” and “Auto-washhhhh” were catchphrases among my circle of friends for a while.

  11. I wouldn’t be overly surprised if people imagined future cities as straight from The 5th Element, much like they imagined technology as being straight from Star Trek. It’s an inventive film despite its cheese, and the spaceport ticket sequence is still one of my favourite film sequences.

    I come down on the side of being greatly amused by Chris Tucker’s ludicrous performance, though I can see why people’d be horrified. I think what made it for me was the little scene where Ruby Rhod grabs a big thick paintbrush and runs it over the promotional photos as an autograph. That’s who he is in a nutshell.

  12. The 5th Element killed me sooner than Back to the Future 2 with the idea of flying cars and high-rise McDonald skyscrapers. I wanted that future!

  13. As others have said, I had never met anyone that hates the 5th Element, except those two above. I love it! I also really liked The Messenger though.

  14. I’m with Calories. Fifth Element was baaaad. And not in that way people meant in the ’80s. It was just two hours of irritation.

  15. This entry made me download and watch Leon. I had meant to do it years ago but forgot. What a great movie!

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