Anyone holding out hope for French director Luc Besson to return to his heyday of “La Femme Nikita” and “The Professional” is in for a letdown with the wan action-comedy of “The Family.” Besson’s first wide release in the US in seven years (since the woeful kid pic “Arthur and the Invisibles,” which also followed the disastrous “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc” by seven years) wasn’t worth the wait. Gimmicky casting of Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones gives Besson’s latest some punch but the film ultimately collapses into a forgettable mess that does no favors to anyone on or off screen.
De Niro stars as mafia don-turned-rat Giovanni Manzoni, living in hiding in the French countryside with his wife (Pfeiffer) and their two teenage kids (Dianna Agron, John D’Leo) under the Witness Protection Program. The entire clan is a constant headache for gruff FBI supervisor Agent Stansfield (Jones) because they just can’t seem to let go of their past lives, leaving a trail of property damage, broken limbs and dead bodies wherever they go. It’s no surprise their antics attract the attention of mafia hitmen, whose arrival accelerates a ridiculous climax that’s never absurd enough to make the shift into delirious fun.
The family’s violent outbursts are played for broad dark comedy throughout, but the laughs never land because every moment feels forced. With such flimsy execution, the parade of smackdowns and whackings quickly becomes mean-spirited and ugly, leaving us with no reason to care about the one-note characters. Besson, who shares a writing credit with “Sopranos” Emmy nominee Michael Caleo based on the novel “Malavita” by Tonino Benacquista, tries to mine some culture clash satire from the very Italian-American family butting heads with very French locals, but all that means is a bunch of tired jokes about fat Americans and snobbish French.
The three leads coast on cruise control in roles that amount to little more than wink-wink nods to previous work (“The Godfather Part II,” “Goodfellas” and “Analyze This” for De Niro, “Scarface” and “Married to the Mob” for Pfeiffer, “The Fugitive” for Jones). That’s particularly disappointing for De Niro and Jones, who are no strangers to bad films but had happily returned to the Oscar spotlight earlier this year. For Pfeiffer it’s just another reminder that she deserves better material than she’s been granted lately.
While the actors never gel as a credible family, D’Leo emerges as a mild surprise as the scheming son. With less baggage and less expectations than his co-stars, he’s completely believable as the smart aleck offspring of a wiseguy. As his sister, former “Glee” star Agron gets saddled with the film’s worst role: an initially tough and principled virgin who falls apart after a fling with a local teaching student.
Absurdly overlong at close to two hours and lacking a single truly inspired action set piece, “The Family” offers little beyond another opportunity to marvel at how far Besson has fallen from the short-lived period he seemed like a bright light in action cinema.