R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: A Luc Besson Production…

In the 1990’s Luc Besson came on to the world stage with action packed, visually stunning pictures. The first came in 1990 with his French film, La Femme Nikita. The story focused on a troubled girl, who ends up being put to death for her crimes, but is revived by a government agency. She is inducted into the organization and becomes a highly trained assassin. The film was a world wide smash and served as a wonderful introduction to Besson’s unique visual style. The film was successful enough that it was proceeded by a poorly made American remake called Point of No Return and then a TV series.

In 1994, the director came back with what is perhaps now his signature film. Leon or The Professional as it was called in the United States was a fantastic look into the mind of a hitman. The film was very much in the tradition of Le Samourai and John Woo’s masterpiece, The Killer in which the hitman is the moral character in the piece and the authorities are the ones corrupted. The picture was also a big breakthrough for Natalie Portman. The child actress showed the world some real depth and made a name for herself. Gary Oldman and Jean Reno both light up the screen as adversaries fighting for the life of the child.

Luc Besson took his career even further in 1997 with The Fifth Element. The fun Space Opera starred Milla Jovovich as Leelo and Bruce Willis as her everyman hero Korben Dallas. The film had a great cast that included Chris Tucker, Ian Holm, and Gary Oldman as the film’s eccentric heavy. The picture was a wonderful experience visually, as it really was a breakthrough for the use of CGI in a major Science Fiction film. Unfortunately, the movie had perhaps too much energy as it was riddled with moments that were too “cute” for the genre. Despite this, the film was a decent sized hit worldwide.

The director’s first big misstep was with his Joan of Arc biopic in 1999 entitled The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. While filled with intense battle sequences and moments of brilliance, the film was ultimately undone by the director’s style. Despite a great cast that included Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunnway, and John Malkovich, the movie couldn’t connect with audiences or critics and was a major disappointment.

Things seemed to go down hill for the director at this point. His marriage to Milla Jovovich fizzled and his first big attempt at doing a serious Historical Epic bombed. However, Besson made some changes in his career that would put him on the rebound financially and artistically. Instead of making the mistake of pushing the envelope with his directorial style, the man became a major player behind the scenes. Fundamentally, Besson’s best work is with concepts and characters. Besson decided to focus on writing and producing pictures. Amazingly, even after handing over the reigns to other directors, each film is still very much in the vein of Mr. Besson’s best work.

Kiss of the Dragon Starring Jet Li and Bridget Fonda. Directed by Chris Nahon.

The first big piece in Besson’s comeback was Kiss of the Dragon in 2001. Following the success of The Matrix, Hong Kong-style films were big business in the world of American cinema. Star Jet Li was a major import from Hong Kong, trying to make it in America the same way John Woo and Jackie Chan were finding some success. Li starred as Liu Jian, a Chinese Secret Service Agent who has come to Paris to capture a major crime lord. Unfortunately, thing’s go awry when Liu Jian’s suspect is murdered by an associate of Richard (Tcheky Karyo), a corrupt Parisian Cop. Liu Jian is framed for the murder and must go on the run from the policeman, who enlists his contacts from the Police and the Paris Underworld to bring Jian in. Caught in the middle is Bridget Fonda’s Jessica, a prostitute in the employ of Richard. Even though Richard is holding her son hostage, Jessica decides to help Liu Jian.

Jet Li has had several chances to court American audiences, and no film had a better chance at succeeding than Kiss of the Dragon. The public first and foremost goes to see Jet Li fight people in his films and no American movie has been a better showcase of his talents than this Luc Besson produced film. Besson merely took Li’s character Liu Jian and placed him in the spot of his usual anti-hero. Li is his, “man on the run”, eluding insurmountable forces, and finally having to take a stand when innocent lives are at stake. The formula is modified from Besson’s usual “shoot’em up” style to a brutal Martial Arts vehicle.

Even the villains seemed to be straight out of a Besson directed picture. Tcheky Karyo’s Richard may as well be the French cousin to Gary Oldman’s corrupt Stansfield from Leon. Richard’s henchmen all seem to have that Besson-flavor to them also, as most are bumbling. Some of the best heavies in the movie are the men who have to try and best Li in martial arts prowess including Didier Azoulay and Cyril Raffaelli as twin albino assassins who seem to come straight out of a Bond movie. Another fight has Li battling an impossibly muscular African American in a bloody brawl.

The action is brutal yet pretty realistic in the film, as wire work is kept to a bare minimum. In its place were enough broken bones and bloodied corpses to make any fan of Fist of Legend happy. Bridget Fonda seemed the only participant lost in the proceedings as she ends up with little to do and doesn’t help herself with a performance fraught with over acting. The film was a modest hit and put Besson on his comeback trail. For lovers of Martial Arts, who were tired seeing fights in tree tops, the movie provided that audience with the proper amount of violence. Besson would not stop here, though.

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The Transporter Starring Jason Statham and Qi Shu. Directed By Corey Yuen.
Besson twists his “man on the run” formula again in The Transporter. Jason Statham stars as Frank Martin; the all purpose bagman, bodyguard, and getaway driver. No job is too big as long as you follow his rules. Business is booming until Frank breaks one of his own rules. Transporting a package from Darren ‘Wall Street’ Bettencourt (Matt Schulze), Frank mistakenly looks at his delivery, discovering it’s actually a young girl named Lai (Qi Shu). The girl is the daughter of a crime lord in league with Bettencourt to smuggle immigrants. Frank uncovers the plot and refuses to hand over Lai to her father.

When the girl is taken, Frank flies into action. Director Corey Yuen, a veteran of many Jet Li action flicks and the stunt coordinator of countless Hong Kong classics put all of his skills to use in this picture. Besson, who wrote the movie still gives the film much of his usual flavor as Frank is his usual, “strong, but silent antihero”. The difference here is, where Kiss of the Dragon went for a bit more realistic approach to its action, The Transporter goes insane with ridiculous action.

Statham, mostly known for Guy Ritchie gangster movies Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch in ensemble roles, relishes his shot at being the lead of an action film. He seethes with cool and looks perfectly natural, even in completely ridiculous situations. While some actors seem uncomfortable or ungraceful during martial arts sequences, Statham looks just as he’s supposed to, like he’s an ex-special forces commando kicking some major tail.

The movie is just down right fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and keeps that goofy grin on your face the entire time as Statham deflects missiles with cookie sheets, parachutes onto moving vehicles at high speeds, and especially when Statham fights a small army of henchmen covered in motor oil. The movie is put on the star’s shoulders and he takes the ball and runs with it.

Unfortunately, none of the villains are up to Statham’s level. Matt Schulze shows little of the charisma he showed in Blade 2 and similar roles. Ric Young, who can be very menacing when taking on “crime lord” parts, comes off limp here. Fortunately, the film has enough style and grace to rise above this problem to still produce a highly entertaining picture. Watch xXx and The Transporter, who came out in a similar period, back to back. The Transporter makes Vin Diesel’s picture seem anemic by comparison.

Luc Besson has become the French version of Jerry Bruckheimer or Joel Silver. He produces action pictures by the boatloads, but despite whatever director has control of the movie, Besson’s stamp is very visible. What Besson does better then either of the other two producers is have an action film with real soul that knows exactly what his audience wants. Besson doesn’t deal in films with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars; his films make the most out of what they have. His streak looks to continue after the great critical response to Unleashed, earlier in 2005 and now The Transporter 2, which has already won over a slew of admirers. Frankly, seeing him back in the director’s chair would be a big pleasure, but Besson is still producing great action pictures, and that’s really all we ask of him.


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Picture Credits: impawards.com, Outnow.ch, Beyondhollywood.com.

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