Luc Besson, the French film-maker, currently has a couple of franchise titles on the go. He is filming “Taken 3” for a 2015 release. Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), I’m guessing here, won’t know who you are but he will find you and he will, no doubt, fuck you up. Also, after a 6 year break, 3 more installments of the “Transporter” series have been announced. If up & coming Brit Ed Skrein adds to his rep before the release of #4 then the apotheosis of charisma, Jason Statham, may not be missed behind the wheel. These are no-frills action movies, uncluttered by symbolism or psychology. They run the gamut of emotions from A to B & this is why they are so successful.
Our man will not be directing any of these films. Nowadays he is a movie mogul. Luc Besson’s company owns 62% of Eurocorp, an independent studio that integrates all aspects of the motion picture business & makes serious money. The new “Taken” & “Transporters” use characters created by Besson. He will be credited as a producer, executive or otherwise & has become an international player. Luc Besson has always known the constituents of a good movie.
The “Cinema du look”…remember that ? A new wave of French film directors in the 1980s with their slick, stylish modern ways. Jean-Jacques Beineix made “Diva” (1981), operatic bootlegging shenanigans, our first view of Dominique Pinon as a cool & deadly thug. Leos Carax’ “Mauvais Sang” (1986), sci-fi but still gangster. Denis Lavant acrobatically caroms down the street to Bowie’s “Modern Love”. Luc Besson’s debut, “Subway” (1985), mobsters in Le Metro but much more than that. Très, très chic, the wonder of Isabelle Adjani, inventive & a little chaotic the film did the trick. In France President Mitterand was as implacable & as divisive as Thatcher & Reagan. These films were Gallic Punk, gobbing at the forces of reaction.
Next time in the director’s chair, in 1988, Besson made “Le Grande Bleu” (“The Big Blue”), a fictionalization of an actual lifelong rivalry between 2 friends. This is an international movie in French, Italian & English, an epic rather than a blockbuster. Who knew that free-diving, a personal voyage to the bottom of the sea, could be so emulous, so engrossing. The submerged environment furnishes a mystical, beautiful element for the movie. I saw this film at an all night showing of “Blue” movies along with “Betty…” & “…Velvet”, heavy hitters but it still made a lasting impression. This montage includes Jean Reno, with Besson since the beginning, as the diver Enzo. The casting of too nutty for Hollywood, Rosanna Arquette, a talented & striking film star, is a right stroke. There are dolphins, being rescued, in dreams, all over the place. There is, also, the affecting, appropriate music of Eric Serra, Luc Besson’s composer of choice. Serra’s overture is absolutely in on Besson’s attempt at modern classicism.
In the USA the distributor wanted a happier ending where one of our heroes survived. They replaced Serra’s score with one by an American composer too. What is wrong with these people ? It is only a French film, it is only art. There is nothing to be afraid of.
Obviously I checked for Besson’s films after this. I found a video copy of his first film “Le Dernier Combat”, (The Last Battle, 1983) where Reno is madder than Max in a black & white, non-verbal, post-apocalyptic wasteland. “Nikita” (1990) was everything you needed in a stylish, intelligent action movie. Anne Parillaud a beautiful state-sponsored weapon of mass destruction. Besson set the standard for designer violence, pre-empting Tarantino by 2 years. I loved “Reservoir Dogs” but I wasn’t shocked by it. I had seen “Nikita” mate. For his next film Luc Besson inevitably went to Hollywood.
“Leon: The Professional” hits the spot. The odd couple of Leon (Reno) the killer & the girl Mathilda (12 year old Natalie Portman) are brought together by a drastic brutality, their alignment sealed by revenge & justice. Besson’s characters are often rather broad, almost caricatures but their recognition of the value of love in a dissonant world shows a humanity which charms & stays in the memory. The slaughter of Mathilda’s family by Norman Stansfield, the sadistic, drug-addled, Beethoven-loving DEA agent is choreographed mayhem. A tightly structured set-piece which places Gary Oldman high on any list of screen villainy. Again composer Eric Serra steps up to add value to a scene which is quite over the top already thank you.
“The Fifth Element” (1997) has more than an odour of overconfidence about it on first viewing. Besson’s 23rd century adventure is a bombardment of sights and sounds some of which are bound to fall on stony ground as the next novelty pushes forward for attention. Us Baby Boomers, despite an early diet of B-movie trashy delights, take our science fiction very seriously. “2001”, “Blade Runner”, “Alien” & others, the futurist pantheon, have been beyond challenge for too long. Even films made for children, “E.T.” & “Star Wars”, are considered significant. Allowing Gary Oldman greater licence to overact than in “Leon”, encouraging an even more excessive performance from Chris Tucker is asking for trouble from the Guardians of the Galaxy Far Far Away.
This film gives up a lot on repeated viewing. Bruce Willis’ cracking wise John McLane-in-space, getting the girl & saving the planet, will always work for me. Milla Jovavic’s Leeloo has her attraction, Ian Holm, off of “Alien” & “Brazil”, tips a hat to the Tradition, the shape-shifting Mangalore goons are fun &, oh yeah, here comes Oldman & Tucker again. “The Fifth Element”, (& “Twelve Monkeys”) may play fast & loose with science fact but has all the inventiveness & imagination that you need. The Diva Plavalaguna is a brilliant extra-terrestrial entertainment. Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” segues into Serra’s “Diva Dance sung by a technologically enhanced soprano, Inva Mula while Leeloo kicks alien butt..strange, camp & memorable.
Next Besson directed a big budget, unrestrained biopic of a great French icon. No not Napoleon, the other one, Joan of Arc. The film got some terrible reviews. The Dallas Morning News wrote “The English are uniformly and broadly portrayed as villainous louts”…how dare he ! He took a break from directing to develop his production company. The films were still action packed but some of the scripts seemed to be no more than sketches. I rented “Wasabi” (2001), Besson’s name on the box as writer/producer, Jean Reno as a rogue cop in Japan…mistake. The films changed while the price of admission remained the same. If his company made 10 films a year & 2 were hits then money was made. He has produced some good movies, “Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005) is one of the best films of this century. “Bandidas” is a western starring Penelope Cruz & Selma Hayek…say no more. Maybe “Transporter 6”, whenever it is made will be a favourite too, maybe not. I doubt that Luc Besson will again direct films as significant as those from the beginning of his career but those he did are enough.