Sunday, August 28, 2011

Absence felt: Luc Besson's Colombiana starring Zoe Saldana

When it comes to liking Colombiana, I don't claim that the film is profound or original, but it leavens its gangster conventions with a French appreciation for beauty. Writer/ producer Luc Besson lifts the concept of a winsome trained assassin from his 1990 La Femme Nikita, some story elements (escapes through ventilator shafts, a car crashing into a police car as the cops eat burgers) from his The Fifth Element (1997), and a child who wants to learn how to become a professional killer from his Leon: The Professional (1994).

While one can accuse Besson of becoming a hack who lazily produces and co-writes exploitative movies like From Paris with Love (2010), I like to think that he works stylistic refinements on a theme in Colombiana. In Leon, for instance, 12 year-old Matilda (Natalie Portman) announces that she wants to become an assassin by spraying her neighborhood blindly with gunfire (much to Leon's chagrin). In Colombiana, 9 year old Cataleya's gangster uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) abruptly shoots several bullets into a passing car as a way to impress on his niece that she should choose a regular education in Chicago. The scene doesn't entirely make sense as he holds out a backpack and a gun in each hand for her to decide between. As the car crashes, the suburban neighborhood freaks out, and the police alarms start up, Emilio walks off with his niece as if nothing has happened, but Besson's pattern of associations remain: killing is a matter of focus and discipline. One needs to know when and where to train one's gun just as a filmmaker needs to know where to point his or her camera.

Whereas From Paris with Love mostly establishes how John Travolta can play the ultimate boorish high-fructose corn syrup-loving American, asserting his midlife crisis by mindlessly shooting as many people as possible while making forlorn references to his former Pulp Fiction glory, Colombiana carries more subtle pleasures. For instance, Besson betrays his liberal bias by having Cataleya (the very assured Zoe Saldana) riddle with sniper fire a scummy CIA agent's photo of himself with George W. Bush while another larger photo of Obama reigns untouched higher up on the wall (although, technically, the scene is set in 2007, so Obama hadn't been elected yet). I also liked the way Cataleya enjoys watching surveillance feeds of her apartment house in her idle moments so she's ready for a massive SWAT team of FBI agents when they do arrive.

Besson likes to juxtapose the small and wily against the grotesquely large and stupid (much as Charlie Chaplin did). As the bulky FBI officers swarm the building's staircases, hallways, and underground garage, Cataleya sneaks around in the air ducts and the ventilator shafts in her underwear (she didn't have time to get dressed) as she carries a large rifle for a later scene. Cataleya is all focus. She lives for one reason: to kill the men who killed her parents when she was 9 years old. Everything else, even the Chicago family who adopts her, is secondary.

Colombiana left me wondering: why bother with any sympathetic male characters at all? Cataleya uses an artist/painter named Danny (Michael Vartan) for sex, but his attempts to get to know her better just emphasize the superfluous nature of his affection. The FBI detective on Cataleya's trail, Special Agent Ross (Lennie James) walks with a Columbo-esque splayed foot gait, but he gradually becomes likable due to the effectiveness of his dogged investigative techniques. We learn about how a random iPhone photo of Cataleya, once downloaded into a police file, can instantly be found and analyzed morphologically by the FBI to help trace her exact whereabouts. It seems typical that the movie's technology has a more intriguing personality than many of the characters.

Still, what is the appeal of a hitman or woman? They appear to justifiably remove human scum (their corrupt scumminess always carefully shown in advance) from this overpopulated world, and in the hands of Besson they often do it with a high-powered rifle from a window in the building across the street, or with a towel or a toothbrush if needed in close combat (they are adaptable to circumstance). They sneak into your house at night and leave a lipstick drawing of an orchid on your chest as you sleep. None of this is ethical, but it is aesthetically pleasing. After all, Cataleya likes to draw. In Grosse Point Blank (1997), Marty (Jon Cusack) confesses to his former girlfriend's father Mr. Newberry that he's been working as a professional killer, and Mr. Newberry replies, "Oh! Good for you. It's a growth industry." Assassins cater to our boredom with the everyday persistence of things. They practice a profession of removal that seems to follow a ruthless but familiar business model. In part by being so thin, Cataleya trims away society's fat. She makes absence felt, and that's reason enough to enjoy her erasures.

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