I remember when the word 'prequel' was new-minted and interesting. These days, it seems like nearly every mainstream movie out there is a remake, a sequel, prequel, a reboot or a 're-imagining'. And yet none of these words are quite right for this movie, which nevertheless feels terribly familiar. I fear we will have to call Colombiana a re-jiggling.
This riotously silly and overwrought action movie is brought to us courtesy of co-producer/writer Luc Besson and his favoured proxy du jour, Olivier Megaton. When Besson's last movie came out I made various cracks about how formulaic and repetitive his output has become, with the immediate addendum that the movie in question was actually a real departure for him. Colombiana is very much in the same vein as the rest of his English-language output these day (put it this way, for a producer whose company logo makes heavy use of dolphins and fairies, there's an awful lot of full-auto action and cranial splatter in Besson's movies).
Opening in a Colombia which is depicted in a not-at-all stereotyped fashion, we meet Don Fabio and Don Luis, a couple of cocaine-dealing drug barons. After they declare undying friendship it comes as no surprise when Don Luis has Don Fabio and his entire family blown away (the reasons why are not made entirely clear, but it's hardly out-of-character). But Don Luis's guys have made a mistake in sparing Don Fabio's young daughter, Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg), as she does a runner and takes refuge with her uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) in Chicago. When Uncle Emilio asks what she wants to be when she grows up, Cataleya shyly reveals that she used to want to be Xena: Warrior Princess (a particularly impressive ambition when you consider this scene is set three years before the character was created) but now she wants to be a hired killer. Pausing only to shoot up some passing traffic, Uncle Emilio agrees to support his niece in her chosen career. As you would, obviously.
Many years pass and the now-grown Cataleya (Jason Statham, no, only kidding, it's Zoe Saldana from Dances With Smurfs – I mean, Avatar) is keeping herself busy sneaking into jailhouses to assassinate prisoners in custody and feeding other bad guys to their own pet sharks. Her problem is that Don Luis has dropped out of sight, courtesy of the CIA, and by leaving her mark on the bodies of all these dead guys she's hoping to get his attention. Unfortunately the FBI are also taking an interest (not entirely surprisingly given she seems to be offing someone every couple of weeks), and the special agent in command (Lennie James) is closing in on her…
Well, what can you say about Colombiana? Cripes. As Besson connoisseurs will already have twigged, the plot is in large part a retread of that of Leon, albeit considerably extended and with a very different ending. Leon is a genuinely great movie, almost certainly the high-point of Besson's career, and the similarities here are so close sometimes that Colombiana never really establishes its own identity.
Part of the problem is that Besson himself is a much better director than the people he retains to do that job nowadays. Not only is Olivier Megaton no Luc Besson, he isn't even really a Louis Leterrier (one of his predecessors as a Besson protege). He can't direct a fight scene to save his life, for one thing, his constant cutting and camera movement completely obscuring what the combatants are actually doing to each other. Perhaps a name change to Olivier Milliton may be in order.
That said, the first act of this movie is vivid and exciting and even unexpectedly moving in places, but unfortunately it's all downhill from this point. I fear much of the problem lies with Zoe Saldana as the central character: she doesn't seem to have either the charisma or the acting chops to convince. Scenes where she has to display raw, uncontrolled grief just seem slightly amusing. There's also the fact that this is a film about a woman who's really seriously messed up, horribly brutalised by childhood trauma and trapped in a cycle of violence as a result. This is quite a dark core for a movie, but it never really comes to grips with it, nor does it seem to want to, even when the plot sort of demands it.
Instead we just get lashings of the usual frothy and excessive Besson nonsense, although in a slightly grittier style than in some movies. The story itself is not great this time, though, and the film-makers have to do the equivalent of popping the bonnet and whacking it with a spade to keep it going at more than one point in the proceedings. You also wonder if Besson and co-scripted Robert Mark Kamen actually bother to read their scripts back before issuing them. One priceless moment has the chief evil henchman making a big speech to his minions, telling them how supernaturally stealthy and unpredictably subtle Cataleya is in her assassination technique, which is immediately followed by her firing a rocket launcher at them.
I was trying to explain the output of Besson and EuropaCorp to my mother while we were watching The Transporter together (don't ask) and she asked if it was a brand rather like Hammer horror. And it seems to me she was pretty close to the truth there. In both cases we're talking about a very distinctive house style and heavy reuse of the same plot elements and cast members. I'm a Hammer fan and a Besson fan, and the fact these movies are formulaic doesn't bother me at all– it's a bit like the blues or punk rock, originality isn't essential as long as the people involved take it seriously and have real commitment.
I enjoyed Colombiana rather less than I have most of Besson's output, mainly because it's not quite up to scratch when it comes to script, performances, or direction: everyone involved seems to be on autopilot. The shadows of other better Besson movies hang over it more heavily than usual, too. Still, look on the bright side: no doubt there'll be another very similar movie from the same people along in nine months or a year and there's every chance that one will see them back on form. Or, to put it another way, better Luc next time…