Although I rarely go nuts for the individual movies, taken as a whole, I am a fan of the Luc Besson factory of action filmmaking. That’s what you have to call it at this point, too. It’s a factory. They crank these things out without pause, and there is a certain degree of slick that they all aspire to that I find to be one of my favorite flavors of modern action. It’s all very Euro and trashy but with a high degree of gloss, and every now and then they throw in a movie star you don’t expect like Liam Neeson in “Taken.”
In particular, I’m fascinated by the way Besson is drawn to this one particular female archetype over and over, the broken little girl who grows up with vengeance in her heart, and his latest film, “Colombiana,” is a solid example of that. The film is undercooked as a script, but Zoe Saldana commits to it with such ferocity that she makes it feel like everything matters, even when the script doesn’t lay out a case for what that is. The hilariously-named Olivier Megaton may be the director here, but Besson’s fingerprints are all over the movie, and I think it’s safe to call him the auteur behind this chaos.
One thing that makes these films stand out is the way Besson insists on classic action aesthetics. In an age where shaky-cam seems to be the shortcut to “intensity” for half-assed directors around the world, Besson’s films all have a very traditional sense of geography and cinematography. He loves the master shot. He loves the long shot. More than anything, he loves to watch these ladies that he turns into killing machines run through their paces, and he wants you to see that clearly. Zoe Saldana stars here as Cataleya, a girl whose parents were viciously murdered in front of her by a drug kingpin, and she grows up planning to return for her revenge. When she finally does, it’s a fairly straightforward affair. “Colombiana” is not built on a foundation of twist endings or narrative surprises. Basically, she knows who she wants to kill, and she goes after them.
I’d say this falls in the mid-range of the movies from the Besson factory. Jordi Molla makes a really nice sleazy bad guy, but he’s barely in this one. He’s got a few scenes at the beginning, shows up once or twice briefly in the middle, and then gets one great fight scene towards the end that involves what I’m guessing is the world’s first example of toothbrush-fu. But when you’ve got a guy who specializes in playing amoral scumbags, why not give him room to play? Why not use him more than this? Likewise, there’s a nice chemistry between Saldana and Michael Vartan, who plays an artist who is the closest thing to a boyfriend that Cataleya can allow herself. He’s sort of playing the Bradley Cooper role from “Alias” here, the nice guy who has no idea that this girl he’s in love with is a stone-cold killer. And for all the chemistry they have, he’s really just in the film to make an ill-timed phone call and kick off the third act, which seems like a shame. And considering the way the film takes its time to set up that Cataleya wants revenge from the moment her parents die, her plan seems to be (A) somewhat random and dependent on dumb luck and (B) terribly conceived, leading to more personal loss for Cataleya that seems like it could have been easily avoided.
And despite all of that, I enjoyed the movie as a slick bit of action business. Didn’t love it. Won’t rave about it. But enjoyed it. Like I said, this particular aesthetic works for me, and I walk into these movies expecting a bit of b-movie fun and little else. Saldana is obviously deeply committed to the role she’s playing, and she gives many of her scenes a dramatic heft that the film doesn’t quite earn. To her, these stakes could not be more important, and she’s such a good physical performer that she makes even the most absurd moments seem credible. She suggests a complex inner life for Cataleya that the script never illuminates, and she keeps this sort of live-wire emotional response simmering along just under the surface, like Cataleya can just barely hold back all these things she’s feeling because she’s never slowed down her quest for vengeance long enough to let herself react.
Amandla Stenberg, who plays the young Cataleya in the early scenes, is very good, and I like the way the script handles her run for freedom. From the moment she sees her parents die to the moment she ends up in New York City at the home of her uncle, there’s no emotional reaction at all. She simply clicks into a survivor mode and starts moving, and it’s not until she reaches her uncle, played by Cliff Curtis, that we finally see tears. That sort of detail is what I enjoy in these films, and it gives them all this sort of high-drama emotional tone that makes them feel different than many action films. Luc Besson and his frequent co-writer Robert Mark Kamen have the basic building blocks down. I guess at this point, all I could ask is that they not crank them out quite so quickly, because a little more time and care, and a script that doesn’t feel quite so dashed off, could have been the difference here between a solid little film that doesn’t connect completely and a really lovely female-driven action film with a heart. They come within shouting distance of it here, and if you have any fondness for the films this team has cranked out before, you’ll probably enjoy enough of this for me to recommend it.
“Colombiana” opens everywhere in theaters today.