Luc Besson

The Family

The-Family-2013-Movie-Poster

2013

EuropaCorp/Relativity Media

Directed by Luc Besson

Executive Producer: Martin Scorsese

Produced by Ryan Kavanaugh, Virginie Silla and Tucker Tooley

Written by Tonino Benacquista based on his novel “Malavita”

If you’ve seen the trailer for THE FAMILY then perhaps like me, you were expecting a mob/crime comedy with plenty of laughs and inside jokes at Robert DeNiro’s expense, poking fun at the numerous gangster roles he’s played with able backup from Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones who have made more than a few crime/mob movies themselves and know the genre.  And yes, there are some laughs in THE FAMILY at the beginning of the movie.  But the longer the movie goes on, the fewer the laughs and by the time it gets to the end there’s an appalling no holds barred bloodbath with a platoon of mob hitmen shooting it out with a pair of teenagers wielding automatic weapons like Rambo on his best day while Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer are locked in a hideously vicious fight to the death with a killer roughly the size of Richard Kiel.

Giovanni Maznoni (Robert DeNiro) was once one of the most powerful mob bosses in Brooklyn and as such became a threat to The Boss of Bosses, Don Luchese (Stan Carp) who orders a hit on Maznoni and his family that fails. Giovanni turns snitch and Don Luchese goes to jail.  The Maznoni family enters the Witness Protection Program under the supervision of FBI Special Agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) and relocated to Normandy, France.

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This assignment is far from being easy duty for Stansfield. In fact, the Maznoni family are a collectively big pain in his ass due to the fact that they simply cannot stop being what they are: a mob family.  Giovanni has…anger management issues, let’s say and he’s easily irritated by such things as his tap water coming out brown and nobody taking it seriously. Wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) doesn’t take kindly to the stereotypical comments that she overhears by pretending she doesn’t speak or understand French. Her response to such is…explosive, shall we say. Daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) is a sweet, soft spoken girl who falls in love with a substitute teacher who tutors her in math. She also has a ferociously violent streak that a Klingon would envy. Son Warren (John D’Leo) is a grifter/forger/hustler who in no time at all has his own junior mafia in his new school.

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The situation is complicated by Giovanni writing a tell all book about his life in the mob. A book that both Maggie and Stansfield tell him can never be published. And through a really bizarre coincidence I just couldn’t buy, Don Luchese finds out where the Maznonis are hiding out and sends a hit team to whack ‘em out and that takes us to the blood-soaked final showdown between the mob and the Maznoni family.

Here’s what I liked about THE FAMILY: The performances are first rate but I wouldn’t expect anything less from old pros like DeNiro, Pfeiffer and Jones.  But the kids step up to the plate and hold their own with the seasoned pros.  Dianna Agron I know from “Glee” and I was surprised to see how well she inhabited this character. The movie was actually almost over before I finally remembered where I knew her from. Judging just by this movie I’d say she has a career in movies if she wants it.  John D’Leo is also a lot of fun to watch as he maneuvers his way towards running his school with the finesse and cold-bloodedness of a Michael Corleone.

I also liked how the movie doesn’t have the kids or the wife BMWing about how they want to have a normal life and why can’t they just be a normal family.  This is a mob family who have accepted and embraced their lifestyle.  They’re criminals and they don’t make any excuses for it. For them this is their “normal” life

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The direction by Luc Besson is also first rate as I would expect from the writer/director/producer of some of my favorite action movies such as “Leon: The Professional” “The Fifth Element” the “Transporter” series “Taken” “Taken 2” and “District 13.”  And I think that’s the problem with THE FAMILY. Luc Besson is an action director and he seems uncomfortable with the comedy in this movie which puzzles me as I’ve seen “Angel-A” a couple of times and I know he can do comedy. Maybe what threw me off is the level of violence in THE FAMILY which is really bloody and brutal and really doesn’t mesh well with the comedy. Oh, there are are funny scenes and funny lines, don’t get me wrong. But right after that we’ll get a scene like the one with DeNiro and the plumber.  It’s a scene that would have been more at home in “Goodfellas” or “Casino” than in a movie that is billed as a comedy.

THE FAMILY

So should you see THE FAMILY? If you can catch a matinee, then I say Yes. But if you can’t you won’t miss out by waiting for it to come to Netflix or one of the movie channels. There’s really nothing wrong with THE FAMILY except for what I feel is an uneven tempo and off center mix of really violent violence with humor.  It’s as if Luc Besson really wanted to make this a full blown thriller but every once in a while an AD poked him with the script and reminded him he had to throw in a joke here and there.

112 minutes

Rated R

http://youtu.be/nwZNypYmPFE

Taken 2

2012

EuropaCorp/Canal+

Directed by Olivier Megaton

Produced by Luc Besson

Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

It would be difficult for TAKEN 2 to top 2008’s “Taken” and I think it’s a smart move on the part of all concerned that they don’t even try. Let’s take the “Die Hard” movies for an example. Each “Die Hard” is more expensive and bigger than the one before it, coming up with even more fantastic action sequences until we wind up with Bruce Willis outrunning a F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. But TAKEN 2 stays at the same level of the first movie and because it remains at that level we get action scenes that actually seem plausible. Liam Neeson, as in the first one is such a terrific action hero because he actually can act and so projects not only toughness but intelligence as well.

We pick up on Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) back in L.A. helping his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) learn how to drive and comforting his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) who is going through changes with her current husband. The husband cancels a family trip to China and Bryan offers to holiday with Lenore and Kim in Istanbul (not Constantinople) after he finishes up a job there. They take him up on his generous offer. Also in Istanbul (not Constantinople) is Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija) the father of one of the men Bryan killed during the events of the first movie. He hasn’t come alone. He’s got a lot of help. A whole lot. And their intention is simple: kidnap Bryan and take him back to their hometown in Albania so that the families of the men he killed can watch him die. It’s a bonus that Kim and Lenore are there as Murad has plans in mind for them as well. Pretty soon it’s Bryan and Lenore who have been taken and have to rely on Kim to rescue them.

Now, don’t worry…Kim doesn’t pick up a pair of guns and start blazing away at the bad guys. But she does play a pivotal part in helping her dad get away from the bad guys in what I thought was a pretty ingenious sequence. And she does get to take part in a car chase that I thought was as funny as it was thrilling since it played out as a screwed up version of an earlier driving lesson Bryan and Kim had before everything went to hell.

And as in the first one, Liam Neeson is solidly at the center. Even though I didn’t enjoy this as much as “Taken” I liked it a lot more than “Unknown.” But you know what? I’d be perfectly happy seeing Liam Neeson doing these European based thrillers for Luc Besson and young hungry directors every two or three years because they’re so dependably entertaining. They’re pulpy action adventures with just enough characterization so that we care about the people on the screen but not so much that it gets in the way of the punchy punchy run run.

That’s not to say the movie is perfect. The bit with the world’s smallest cell phone had me rolling my eyes and the hyper quick editing during the fight scenes made me groan. Especially since it looked like Liam Neeson was pulling off some pretty good moves there. The two editors on this movie get no points from me.

And as the leader of the Albanian kidnappers Rade Serbedzija isn’t much of a fearsome evil criminal mastermind. It apparently doesn’t matter to him in the least that his son kidnapped and tortured underage girl, hooking them on drugs and selling them to pervy old men. All he cares about is that his son was killed and he wants revenge.

Famke Janssen does solid supporting work here as does Maggie Grace. TAKEN 2 isn’t as surprising or on the same blow-your-mind level as “Taken.” And it doesn’t have a badass speech like the now classic “I don’t know who you are” and you know something? I’m glad the writers didn’t even try. TAKEN 2 is a cheeseburger-and-fries action thriller as professionally efficient in its storytelling as Bryan Mills is at looking for, finding and killing bad guys.

96 minutes

Rated PG-13

http://youtu.be/VpaT8NzkLgE

Taken

2008

EuropaCorp/Canal+

Directed by Pierre Morel

Produced by Luc Besson

Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

We really shouldn’t have been surprised that Liam Neeson emerged in 2008 as an authentic action hero in TAKEN. After all, he’s been playing badasses since 1981’s “Excalibur” where he was Gawain, one of King Arthur’s Knights of The Round Table and you don’t get much more badass than that. But he played other badass characters in movies such as “The Mission” “Next of Kin” “Rob Roy” and “Gangs of New York” He’s been a superhero in 1990’s “Darkman,”  trained Bruce Wayne in “Batman Begins,” a Jedi Master in “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” and put plans together as Hannibal Smith in the movie version of “The A-Team.” So Liam Neeson has earned his badass credentials legitimately. But he’s earned his reputation as an actor in more…shall we say, prestigious roles such as Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece “Schindler’s List” Michael Collins in “Michael Collins” Alfred Kinsey in “Kinsey” “Les Miserables” and a number of well-received and well-reviewed arthouse movies.

But I think what surprised all of us is how damned good Liam Neeson is as an action hero. This is a role that Bruce Willis, Jason Statham or Samuel L. Jackson could have done in their sleep. But because Liam Neeson is doing it and treats this role with the same professionalism and talent he brought to one of his more prestigious films he elevates the entire movie. The plot is pure 1980’s action but due to Mr. Neeson’s acting choices to play his character as a man of intelligence whose near obsessive attention to detail is just as much the key to him staying alive as his lethal set of destructive talents, TAKEN gets bumped up a number of considerable notches. In its own way it’s as remarkable an action movie as the first “Die Hard” “Lethal Weapon” “The Transporter” or the movie with which it shares a somewhat similar plot: “Commando”

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) has retired from the CIA’s Special Operations Group so that he can rebuild his relationship with his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) after having missed so many years away from home protecting his country. It’s not easy when Bryan’s ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) plainly would prefer it if he stays away. And Bryan can’t compete on a monetary level since Lenore’s new husband Stuart (Xander Berkeley) is obscenely wealthy. All Bryan has to offer is his time but he’s not going to be able to give her that as Kim wants go to Paris for the summer with her BFF Amanda. Supposedly the girls are going on a cultural tour of French museums but actually they’re going to be following U2 on their European tour.

Well, we all know what happens to good Caucasian American girls who don’t do what their parents say and go to foreign countries looking to drink and party and fool around with foreign boys, don’t we? They get kidnapped, of course. In the case of Kim and Amanda they’re taken by an Albanian human trafficking ring. Bryan hears the kidnapping while talking to Kim on her phone which is picked up by one of the kidnappers. Bryan tries to negotiate with the man in which Liam Neeson delivers what has to be one of The Top Ten Best Bad Ass Speeches in movie history. The man isn’t impressed and that sets up the rest of the movie which has Bryan go to Paris and with the single-minded relentlessness of a Terminator T-800 proceeds to do exactly what he told the kidnappers he was going to do: he looks for them. He finds them. And he kills them.

TAKEN became one of the surprise hits of 2008 as word-of-mouth spread and the movie got great reviews. And it’s all well deserved. I love thrillers like this that are set in Europe as the exotic, unfamiliar locations give added weight to the movie. I dunno, it’s just me but I take thrillers and spy movies more seriously when they’re set in Europe. Maybe I just like the locations. But that, along with the solid performances from all concerned adds up to one of the most exciting and entertaining action movies I’ve seen in recent years. TAKEN is an excellent example of a movie that takes something we’ve seen plenty of times in other action movies but makes it seem fresh, as if we’re seeing it for the first time and again, most of that credit goes to Liam Neeson. He’s not playing an invincible superman who walks through tons of disposable bodies to achieve his goals. We see as he methodically and ruthlessly works his way up the human trafficking food chain like the professional he is. And I really like the way he moves in the fight scenes. Neeson is no Jason Statham and wisely doesn’t try to be. I liked the effective and powerful economy of movement in his punches and blocks. It’s rare in action movies that we get heroes as smart with their heads as they are deadly with their hands and that’s the thing that makes Bryan Mills stand out.

So should you see TAKEN? What, are you kidding me? Chances are you’ve seen it already but if you haven’t then your homework assignment is to do so at your earliest opportunity. TAKEN deserves a permanent place in your home action movie library.

96 minutes

Rated PG-13

The Fifth Element

Columbia Pictures

1997

Directed and Written by Luc Besson

Produced by Patrice Ledoux

Is there any doubt that whenever a list of the coolest guys on the planet is compiled, Bruce Willis is somewhere on it?  Right from when he made his big splash on the TV series ‘Moonlighting’ and then hit box office gold with “Die Hard” and it’s sequels, Bruce Willis has been not only one of our most likeable and favorite action heroes he also just comes across a really cool guy.  Bruce Willis has never appeared remote or distant to us.  He’s approachable.  One gets the impression that if you met Bruce Willis on the street and asked him if he wanted to go get a beer he’d say; “sure” and you’d spend the night with him kicking the willy bobo.  Maybe that’s the real charm of his appeal: Bruce acts and feels like one of us: a regular guy who made good and lucked into a brilliant Hollywood career but never forgot his New Jersey roots.  I like him and I like most of his movies.  And one of his best movies is the science fantasy action/satire/romp THE FIFTH ELEMENT.

Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) is a cab driver living and working in 23erd Century New York where vehicles fly along skyways.  He’s a retired Federation Special Forces major who’s just trying to keep his head down and live as quiet a life as possible.  And he’s been doing that until a beautiful red-haired woman named Leeloo (Mila Jovavich) literally drops out of the sky into his cab.

Leeloo is “the perfect being” who has been genetically created to save the human race from a Great Evil that has taken the form of a living planet and is heading straight at Earth.  The only way to stop this Great Evil is to find four stones that embody the characteristics of the Four Elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water.  When combined they will give their power to The Fifth Element which is The Perfect Being and give this entity the power to destroy The Great Evil.  However the problem is to find the four stones.  Especially since they’re being hunted by kazillionaire industrialist/munitions dealer Zorg (Gary Oldman) who has allied himself with The Mangalores, a reptilian warrior race that is hilariously bent on destruction at all costs.  Zorg is an agent of The Great Evil and he’s just as single-minded to find the stones as is Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) who is the latest in a long line of human priests who have served another alien race, The Mondoshawan who have been the keepers of the stones for millennia.  Korben is recruited by his old boss General Munro (Brion James) on orders of The President (Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister) to secure the stones.  This means that Korben has to agree to a rigged contest to meet his contact: the blue skinned alien opera diva Plavalagunan (Maiwenn Le Besco) who is appearing on the pleasure starliner ‘Fholston Paradise’.  But the Mangalores find out about the meet and they have their own plans for the stones…as does Zorg…

Korben has to secure the stones from The Diva Plavalagunan, save the starliner when The Mangalores hijack it in true ‘Die Hard’ fashion, do an interstellar radio show with the bizarre Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) and after all that still figure out a way to save the world from The Great Evil.

I love THE FIFTH ELEMENT to death for a number of reasons.  First off, it’s one of the most original and imaginative fictional worlds I’ve ever seen on screen.  There’s an entire universe here that is a visual treat.  The production design of the movie was created by French comic artists/creators Jean Giraud who is more popularly known as ‘Moebius’ and Jean-Claude Mezieries.  The costumes were created by a French fashion designer: Jean-Paul Gaultier.  All of which contributes to the unique look of the movie.  THE FIFTH ELEMENT looks like no other science fiction film you’ve seen.  Unless you’re a fan of the American magazine “Heavy Metal” which in itself reprinted stories from the French magazine “Metal Hurlant” which was a graphic magazine of science fiction and fantasy stories.   There was a “Heavy Metal” movie made in 1981 and a respectable argument could be made that THE FIFTH ELEMENT could be considered as an unofficial remake of the ‘Harry Canyon’ segment of that anthology movie as it has a lot of similarities.   All of which sums up like this: THE FIFTH ELEMENT has a unique flavor to its look, tone and style that is quite refreshingly different from conventional science fiction movies.

Second, I love the humor in this movie.  Most science fiction movies are so deadly serious it’s fun to see one that doesn’t take itself so seriously.  The group that eventually gets together to say the world is so goofy that you figure the world might be better off if they failed.  But they come together as a team in a way I found really charming and surprising. And even the soundtrack is different.  It’s got a decidedly Middle Eastern flavor, especially during a wild car chase where Korben is outrunning the cops.  A car chase with flying cars, remember.  It’s as wild as it sounds.

Third, the performances.  Bruce Willis does something really surprising in THE FIFTH ELEMENT.  He doesn’t play ‘John McClane In Space’ as I think a lot of people expected him to do.  Korben Dallas is a totally different character and some of the best scenes in the movie is how Korben Dallas reacts to the events he’s involved in.  Bruce Willis knows the effectiveness of how a single look can enhance a scene and he does it to great advantage in this movie.   This was Mila Jovavich’s first big role and she does a great job conveying the charm and grace of a “Perfect Being” (whatever that is).  She’s got a lot of terrific scenes with Ian Holm as his character is the only one who can understand her “perfect language”

And now we come to Chris Tucker.  Sigh.  I really don’t understand my brother.  I’ve seen him in interviews and in the remarkable PBS series “African American Lives” and he talks and behaves nothing like the way he does he does in those horribly embarrassing “Rush Hour” movies.  However, I have to say that I can accept his wildly over-the-top performance in THE FIFTH ELEMENT because that’s the nature of the movie.   It’s that kind of movie where you either have to go along with what’s on the screen or not.

I do have to say that as much as I enjoyed Gary Oldman’s hilariously bizarre performance as the intergalactic industrialist/arms dealer Zorg I have no idea why or how he came to be working for The Great Evil or what he hoped to gain from that arraignment.  I mean, The Great Evil is coming to destroy all life on Earth, right?  So wouldn’t that mean Zorg as well?  And for that matter The Great Evil is never really explained.  Why does it want to wipe out Humanity?  Why do The Mondoshawan care so much about why Humanity survives?  Why do they establish a sect of human worshippers on Earth?

Even after all the questions and doubts I still say watch THE FIFTH ELEMENT.  Chances are you’ve seen it already.  Good for you.  It’s not only a great Bruce Willis movie it’s a great fun movie as well.  It’s got terrific visuals, outstanding productions values and special effects that hold up amazingly well 15 years later.  Enjoy.

Rated: PG-13

126 minutes

Colombiana

2011

TriStar Pictures

Directed by Olivier Megaton

Produced by Luc Besson

Screenplay by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

It occurred to me about forty-five minutes into COLOMBIANA that when it came to casting, Luc Besson might conceivably have said to the casting director; “just find me the skinniest actress you can, doesn’t matter who she is as long as she’s thin as a broom handle.”  Which I don’t mean to disparage Zoë Saldana in any way whatsoever because I like her a lot.  I’ve seen her in “Drumline” “Pirates of The Caribbean: Curse of The Black Pearl” ”Star Trek” “Star Trek Into Darkness” ”The Losers” and “Death at a Funeral” and enjoyed her in all of them.  And I enjoyed her performance in COLOMBIANA.  It’s just that considering that most of her screen time is spent crawling through tight places like air ducts, access tunnels and ventilation systems, if Luc Besson had found an actress a size smaller than her, it’s possible that Zoë Saldana would have been out.

The movie opens in 1992 where a young girl named Cataleya Restrepo (Amandla Stenberg) is witness to the murder of her parents by Marco (Jordi Molla) the right hand man of drug warlord Don Luis (Beto Benites) After a dazzlingly daring escape from the clutches of Marco and his hired guns, the girl makes her way to Chicago and the home of her uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis).  He assures her that he’ll take care of her as if she were his own daughter.  She informs him that the only thing she wants is for her uncle to teach her how to be a killer.

Cut to fifteen years later.  Cataleya (Zoë Saldana) is now a hitwoman working for her uncle.  But unknown to him, she’s been working her own hits on the side, taking out members of Don Luis’ cartel, hoping to draw him out as he’s deep in hiding and that’s the only way she can hope to get to him.  Cataleya’s starting to make mistakes and leave trails behind her.  One of those trails is picked up by FBI Special Agent Ross (Lennie James) who thinks he’s finally found the assassin responsible for twenty-two mysterious killings in which all the victims had a flower drawn on their chests, the Cataleya, which only grows in a certain region of Colombia.  Only thing now is getting his hands on her.  And Cataleya doesn’t intend to get caught until she’s finally had her revenge.

Usually revenge as a motive in a movie bores me a lot of the time because I think that in the past 10, 15 years  it’s a lazy way for screenplay writers to get the story going.  You need a reason for your protagonist to go around slaughtering everybody in sight?  Kill their loved ones and we’re off to the races.  Kill their loved ones in the first ten minutes of the movie and you’ve got eighty more minutes to wallow in the bloody carnage.

To give COLOMBIANA credit it does go a little more into the psychological damage revenge does when someone sacrifices their life to that pursuit.  There isn’t much to the character of Cataleya but that’s because she doesn’t have a character.  Her every waking moment has been dedicated to the pursuit of revenge and nothing else.  She satisfies her basic needs such as eating, sleeping and sex with her artist boyfriend Danny (Michael Vartan) who has no idea of what or who she actually is and that’s it.

I got a good laugh out of watching Zoë Saldana toting around machine guns and rocket launchers three times her size and weight as she’s so skinny and tiny.  But she does it with total seriousness, I give her credit for that.  More interesting is her methods of sneaking in and out of buildings in Old School Ninja style: she uses no kind of hi-tech at all, just her own strength, speed and skill and whatever she can smuggle into her hair.

So should you see COLOMBIANA?  It’s an okay time-waster on a Friday or Saturday night if there’s nothing else available on Netflix that turns your crank.  It’s professionally done and done quite well, in fact.  The acting is professional, the pacing moves along professionally, the production values are professional…see where I’m going with this?  COLOMBIANA is a professionally made thriller but that’s all it is.  It’s not quirky enough, or violent enough, or crazy/wild enough or bizarre enough to elevate it any higher than the level of a professional, competent product.

PG-13

107 minutes