The Girl With The Orchid Medallion
by James Killough
Shortly after his disastrous foray into animation with Arthur and the Invisibles in 2006, semi-auteur Luc Besson announced he was retiring from directing. Steven Soderbergh did the same thing last year. Both have been directing since they were in their mid-twenties, and the process has clearly long since lost its appeal. As Marcello Mastroianni, playing an uninspired director in Federico Fellini’s autobiographical 8 ½, says in a panic to his lading lady Claudia Cardinale, “Ma non c’ho niente più da dire!” But I have nothing left to say!
Or, as Michael Bay’s putative natural father John Frankenheimer—who was so furious that Bay claimed to be his son that he tried to disprove it, but failed—said in an NPR interview shortly before he died, “Directing is for younger men.” What Frankenheimer, who directed the seminal thriller French Connection, was referring to was the sort of hyper-kinetic action adventure films he helped pioneer with Connection, and which his natural son took to an extreme that I am not alone in considering unwatchable, despite the fact my dog Henry co-starred in Bay’s graduating student film at Wesleyan University.
Just as U2 has been singing the same song in different ways for decades now, Luc Besson has been making the same film since he broke out with Subway in 1985. That was a facile and completely untrue statement, but it came to me in the gym while I was musing about this post while working biceps and triceps, and I thought it sounded like a bloggishly hip quip. The fact is, the same man who made Leon: The Professional, a.ka. the action thriller that launched Natalie Portman, also made the underwater weeper The Big Blue and the bizarre black and white Angel-A. The man is definitely versatile, as they like to say on gay cruising sites.
Besson’s action films are, of course, similar thematically to each other in many ways; he is a semi-auteur, after all. They also often feature a kickass assassin babe, who performs implausible action adventure-type feats against her will, but driven by her nature and nurture. I am referring specifically to both La Femme Nikita and his particular take on the life of Joan of Arc, one of my personal favorite schizophrenic saints, in the little-seen The Messenger, which starred his ex-wife Milla Jovovich in a fevered performance, which I’m still not sure might have actually have been brilliant. Besson also pegged St. Joan as insane, but I went a step further in a play of mine called Insanity, Texas: the dilemma is she was right: against all odds, an illiterate medieval French peasant teen, who spoke to God and suffered hallucinations and all manner of text-book schizo symptoms, led the Dauphin’s armies to victory against the English. Moses was also a classic schizo, but he also led his people… never mind. I digress.
Jovovich played the kickass reluctant assassin babe one more time in The Fifth Element before she and Besson parted ways. It wasn’t exactly a Mia Farrow and Woody Allen creative-romantic collaboration, but it was way sexier. There is something erotic about talented unshaven toady French men (note that I am not calling them frogs) like Besson and Serge Gainsbourg, who have lengthy relationships with actresses who are way out of their league, but nevertheless in their thrall. For some reason best left between me and my therapist, I identify.
I bring up Woody Allen, whom I do not find at all erotic in his pursuit of women who are physically way out of his league, because he is a case in point regarding Besson’s retirement from directing (although not from filmmaking). To make Allen’s sort of social dramedy is relatively easy. It’s a walk in the park, in fact, which is why I personally give him little credit for his films, despite Chris Cramer giving him so much. I doubt Allen even storyboards his films. I’ll bet he does a classic master shot of a scene, which is the wide angle you always shoot first to make sure you are covered, and then goes in for the mid-shots and close-ups, then a little Chinese after lunch, then maybe a bit of clarinet playing. Boom-boom-boom, done, wrap, next. It’s the kind of film you can do when you’re ninety and in an oxygen tent.
A Besson action film, on the other hand—which, it should be carefully noted, is the same price of admission as one of Allen’s, and they probably get the same fee to make it—is exhausting to create, and takes far longer. A much-maligned Michael Bay film is the same. Forget the fact every frame must be storyboarded and meticulously planned. You also have all of those stunts, and the fast editing (which requires many times the amount of shots), the explosions. Groan. I admire guys who have the stamina, the skill and the techno-geeky-ness to do that kind of shit, but the most frantic I’m ever likely to get is a slapstick-ish rom-com, like every good homo filmmaker. I’ll leave the bang-bang and the assassin babes to the boys who want to bang babes who are out of their league.
What Besson has done with Colombiana is outsource the exhausting part to another director, the Transformers-sounding Olivier Megaton, while he sat back and wrote and produced it, which can mean any number of things, from actually being on the set breathing down Olivier’s neck, to hanging out in a hotel suite near the set on the phone all day while babes who are out of his league frolic in the pool. I’ve never worked with Besson and am unlikely to, so I have no idea how hands on he is, but I’m going to guess it’s a bit of both: he is a passionate filmmaker and a connoisseur of dynamic babes.
I’m sure it’s already been noted (I try not to read other reviews prior to seeing a film or writing about it), but Colombiana is a remake of La Femme Nikita as a Zoe Saldana vehicle. In terms of physical action, Saldana is even more impressive here than she was in Avatar. The woman is in fine shape, and I even bought the fact she was in her mid-twenties, despite an IMDb age of thirty-three, which could add four years on to that in reality, and usually does (a female actress ex of mine is a year older than me in real life, but five years younger on the IMDb).
I will just skid off subject here for a second to be a total racist and say how much I resent the black bitches for their skin. The saying, “The mirror is the enemy of middle age,” applies only to white folk, excluding Tuttle.
Colombiana is what it is, a revenge flick, without nearly as much humor as the Korean Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, which was like a roller coaster ride so exotic it felt like a fresh experience; in other words, you’ve been through the giddy ups and downs and twists and bends before, but it’s so different that it seems like the first time you’ve been through it. That doesn’t apply to Colombiana, although there are some inventive ways Megaton and Besson rehash the same old.
The movie is solidly made for what appears to be a limited budget by Hollywood standards; like many Besson ventures, the financing credits are mainly European, which is a route I would take if I were him, too, rather than working with the douche-y American studios. You have far more freedom and artistic license, no filmmaking by a committee of execu-dorks whose closest encounter with actual film has been taping themselves on a smartphone doing blow off a hooker’s belly at a stag party in Vegas with a bunch of agents from William Morris Endeavor (I’m not saying I’ve ever seen said footage, but I might have and forgotten).
There are some glaring production shortcuts taken, but nothing that will disturb the untrained eye; they are mainly in the locations department. Other glitches are saved by frenetic editing. It is far more thoughtfully and tastefully shot than a Michael Bay film, more along the lines of a Bourne Identity.
Perhaps Megaton’s ear was also not attuned to the fact that the chief of police at the Barkersfield, California station had a thick Scandinavian accent, which was so unlikely it derailed me for a good fifteen minutes while I lost step with the film and scanned for more Euro-glitches. The sequence in the station, which is a decent set piece in terms of direction, is of course not really filmed in Bakersfield, which made me call into question the nationality of all the cops involved. Etcetera. It’s not easy going to the movies with myself.
It’s going to be interesting to see how this stacks up against The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which is coming out this Christmas. From the trailer, Tattoo looks amazing, and it is David Fincher, so it will likely wipe the floor with Colombiana, especially from a production point of view. Just from the trailer, it is already more stylishly shot. And, let’s face it, I’ll watch Daniel Craig eat scrambled eggs. He’s definitely representing for the middle-aged white dudes.