Take, if you will, a picture — or how about several motion pictures stretching back all the way to 1990, almost 25 years of pictures — from Frenchman Luc Besson. Take a close look at those pictures and a theme emerges, a variation on a theme. Besson has become a one-man band, the Stevie Wonder or the Prince of movies, but there aren’t many doves crying in his movies; more like doves dying, by the sky full.
At first glance, starting with La Femme Nikita all the way back in 1990 — the first Besson film I ever saw, back when I was still an undergraduate business major with what would become an undying fascination with film as text — Besson, as an uncredited co-producer/writer/director, displayed an instinctive feel for the fine art of mayhem that would serve as a transition from the broad hijinks of the 1980s rooted in the machismo of granite-faced heroes that would one day become expendable. He gave us a little punkie/junkie girl (Anne Parillaud), a convicted felon on her way to prison who gets a second chance as a prototypical trainee in a super-secret spy-assassin development program under the tutelage of a mentor-father figure (Tcheky Karyo), who always seemed on the verge of crossing the line to becoming intimate.
This dynamic had a titillating kick that was no less absurd than the over-the-top satires or the bloodbaths that Hollywood foisted upon us, but it appeared to offer a subtle psychological bent, something else to consider amongst the glorified orgies of violence.
A few years later, Besson returned with Léon: The Professional (known simply as The Professional here in the U.S.) and the starker differences in ages between the professional killer (Jean Reno) and his charge (a very young Natalie Portman who reminded us of Jodie Foster from her Taxi Driver days) upped the kink ante even further — to say nothing of the upfront teasing banter instigated by Portman’s character, a young girl whose family has been slain, leaving her in the begrudging protection of Reno’s solitary premier assassin-for-hire.
When there ain’t no women (mother figures) around, the stage is set for the complex Electra issues to achieve surreal levels, and these girls proved willing to do anything to please their killer-daddies. There’s a degree of complexity, or at the very least complication, in Besson’s work that pushes it past the more simplistic single dimensional portrayals we tend to get in standard Hollywood fare of women on screen. His girls, like the title character played by Zoe Saldana in the 2011 Besson-penned actioner Colombiana (directed by acolyte Olivier Megaton), grow up and into the dangerous lives they’ve been trained for, and can more than hold their own against the old boy’s network, but it is worth asking if, for instance, Saldana’s fatale ever achieves a distinct feminine identity outside her obvious physicality.
What separates her from Frank Martin (Jason Statham) in Besson’s Transporter movies? Frank gets to assume the masculine role of protector of women and children, a virile lover, making him a modern-day knight or a Western ronin (all typically male figures). Maybe this idea has popped up in Besson’s head, forcing him to stick to the more traditional heroic modes and familial configurations of late.
He has dubbed Liam Neeson the new godfather who knows best when it comes to saving his daughter from international terrorists in the ongoing Taken series. What sets Taken apart from Besson’s earlier projects is a much more clearly defined relationship. No more surrogate fathers of pretty young orphan types. He even goes a step further with the 2013 feature The Family that actually lured him back into the director’s chair, setting up a complete nuclear family — albeit a mafia clan in the witness protection program headed by Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer with two shrewd teens (Dianna Agron and John D’Leo) who have learned a few tricks from their folks — that is able to slay and stay together.
His latest iteration of this brand of family-friendly action, 3 Days to Kill, inserts Kevin Costner into the interchangeable daddy slot, but the problem is we have grown accustomed to the formula, and may need Besson to return to the perverse thrills of the early days. The first Taken teased us, by forcing the daughter (Maggie Grace) of Neeson’s mercenary-security expert into world of the underground sex slave trade. Besson, and his stable of directors for hire who execute his every half-cocked idea, has forgotten the importance of a careful bit of suggestion and the little blue pill of humor that enlivened his best works. Papa needs to dig back into that old bag of his.
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