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DVD Reviews for 1/14 - The Professional, Fifth Element

The film that splashed Natalie Portman into the global film-going consciousness.
by Peter Sobczynski

Since bursting onto the international movie scene with the hit action film “La Femme Nikita,” movie fans have been split right down the middle on the subject of French director Luc Besson. To some, he is a genius who has fused the event-film sensibilities of a Spielberg or a Cameron with the kind of visual poetry and abstract narrative usually found in artier fare. Then there are his naysayers, who think that his films are garish messes that appear to have been produced by and for 12-year-old boys with ADD. Personally, I find myself siding with the first group and find Besson’s films, whether they are those that he has personally directed or those, such as “The Transporter” or “Kiss of the Dragon,” to be gorgeous works of pop art in which his astonishing facility for lush visuals and kinetic storytelling walk hand in hand with the almost childlike enthusiasm that he brings to the filmmaking process–every one of his films feels as if it were the first work by a young newcomer who thinks that he may only have one shot at directing a film and chooses to throw everything possible into it lest he never get a chance to do it again. Of all the blockbuster filmmakers to emerge in the post-Spielberg era, he is among the most distinctive and it is a shame that he has remained relatively quiet since his last feature, 1999's underrated “The Messenger”; if the film industry is going to shift completely to high-octane behemoths, it would be nice to have a couple made by someone who really knows how to do them right.

Two of his best films, 1994's “Leon” (a.k.a. “The Professional”) and 1997's “The Fifth Element” have both been re-released by Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video in relatively lavish 2-disc sets that should dazzle newcomers and hard-core fans alike. Although the absence of Besson’s presence from the proceedings is a bit disappointing (like Spielberg, he avoids commentary tracks and prefers to let his work speak for itself), the films themselves look and sound spectacular and the bonus feature, while perhaps not as abundant as one might like, contain much more than just the usual fluff that makes up a lot of the so-called “special” editions that crop up these days to separate fans from their hard-earned money.

Although dismissed by some in America on its initial release for allegedly beings little more than a preteen riff on his previous effort, “La Femme Nikita,” “Leon” has definitely improved over the years and I would comfortably rank it as his most viscerally exciting work as well as his most emotional. The basic plot conceit reeks of both crass sentimentality and cheesy brutality; a loner hit man (Jean Reno) befriends his recently orphaned (as in five minutes earlier) 12-year-old neighbor Mathilda (Natalie Portman, in her debut performance) and agrees to teach her the tricks of his trade so that she can get revenge on the corrupt cop (Gary Oldman) who killed her entire family. From these bare bones, however, Besson has created that most unusual of creatures, a balls-to-the-wall spectacle with an actual human core. The action scenes are amazing to behold–the opening sequence (in which Leon’s deadliness is quickly and effectively established) and the closing firefight (where Leon defends his charge to the death) are among the best such scenes you will ever see in the way that they balance a loose and unpredictable feel within the astonishingly precise choreography and editing. Just as startling is the genuinely effective relationship that develops between Leon and Mathilda, especially in the longer (by 24 minutes) “Leon” cut, as the film progresses and she forces him out of his shell that he has created. What springs up between them is a truly odd and genuinely loving relationship–not a sexual one (although Portman is displayed in several scenes in a way that, while not particularly exploitative, will make some viewers a tad uncomfortable) but the kind of idealistic one where a person comes into your life out of the blue and completely alters your outlook on life for the better. Throw in a killer score (from Eric Serra), some great performances (Portman’s work remains one of her best performances to date and Oldman is hilariously over-the-top) and weirdly welcome bits of humor throughout and you have one of the great action films of the 1990's.

“The Fifth Element,” his next film, featured some of the same thematic elements–a tough loner is forced out of his ennui while helping a young woman fulfill her destiny against the forces of evil. This time around, however, the setting is 300 years in the future, the hero is an embittered ex-soldier (Bruce Willis) eking out a living as the driver of a flying cab and the young woman (Milla Jovovich) is a genetically-designed superbeing who holds the power to save the universe from destruction from alien invaders. (Some things remain the same; Gary Oldman reappears as the chief bad guy in a performance that redefines the phrase “scenery-chewing”). The tone this time is lighter than usual for a Besson work–there is more deliberate humor on display here and it also features a rarity for him, an unambiguously happy ending in which good triumphs and evil is defeated–and the visuals have the eye-popping verve of an unfathomably elaborate comic-book universe come to life. Beyond the sheer spectacle of the film, the other key ingredient to the success of the film is the performance by Milla Jovovich, and not just because of the strategically-placed bandages that comprise her costume for a good chunk of her on-screen time. With the completely guileless, wide-eyed approach that she brings to Leeloo, Jovovich is completely convincing as a being of astounding physical and mental capabilities who is giddy at the prospect at being able to take the unfamiliar form of the human body out for a test drive to see what it can do. Although flawed in parts (the Egyptian-set prologue with Luke Perry is useless and things begin to drag in the last fifteen minutes after Oldman leaves the scene for good), “The Fifth Element” is a cheerfully goofy sci-fi epic that is crammed with style and invention throughout. Hell, it even managed to find a context for the obnoxious motor-mouthed presence of Chris Tucker that actually suited his “talents” in such a way that even he scores some laughs.

Written and directed by Luc Besson. Starring Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman and Danny Aiello. 1994. 133 minutes. Unrated. A Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment release. $24.99


Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. Directed by Luc Besson. Starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm and Luke Perry. 1997. 127 minutes. PG-13. A Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment release. $24.99


HUNTER: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $39.99): Premiering in 1984 as a TV-knockoff of “Sudden Impact,” this long-running cop drama didn’t waste a lot of time on scenes involving anguished personal lives, graphic forensic footage or the other staples of current police shows. Instead, it just concentrated on a tough-as-nails L.A. cop (Fred Dryer) who cleaned up the streets the only way he knew how–by shooting perps in the spine. The prototypical Reagan-era cop show, to be sure, but such a pure example of the form that a strange part of me (the same part that also worships John Milius) still loves this program to this day.

ICE STATION ZEBRA (Warner Home Video. $19.97): You have the balsa-wood airplanes, the steak-and-peas dinners and specimen jars filled with Mountain Dew (to simulate urine)–all you need to do is pick up this weird, Cold War-era action thriller, in which sub commander Rock Hudson awaits orders that could unknowingly trigger a nuclear incident while trying to ferret out the Russian spy on board, and you too can hold your very own Howard Hughes theme party.

THE LETTER [i[(Warner Home Video. $19.97): In one of the most wonderfully nasty performances of her entire career, Bette Davis burns up the screen in this Somerset Maugham adaptation as a murderess who desperately tries to cover up her crime by claiming that she did it in self-defense.

LIL’ PIMP (Lion’s Gate Home Video. $19.98): I haven’t seen this animated film and all I really know about it was that Sony was supposed to have released this theatrically a couple of years ago until they decided to scuttle the entire thing. However, how could I possibly write a column like this and not mention the existence of an animated film about a preteen pimp busting heads and breaking hearts?

[site=]]PAPARAZZI (Fox Home Entertainment. $27.95): An action star (with the unlikely moniker of Bo Larramie) takes revenge on the evil paparazzi that provoked an accident that injured his wife and cost his son his spleen by killing them in cold blood one by one to the presumed cheers of the audience. This may sound like a truly demented premise for a film (though considering that it was the brainchild of Mel Gibson, perhaps not) but the idea comes off as absolutely staid when compared to its jaw-dropping execution, especially the performance by Tom Sizemore as the main monster; he chews not only the scenery but good portions of the soundstage, parking lot and commissary to boot. Fans of Golden Turkey-caliber films can rejoice for this ego-driven mess is perhaps the best/worst of its kind since “Glitter” and “Battlefield Earth.”

SILVER CITY (Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment. $24.99): Even liberal-minded critics were largely put-off by John Sayles’s heavy-handed political satire of a clueless and corrupt politician (named Dickie Pilager, no less) as he campaigns to become the next governor of Colorado. It is a mess–there are too many subplots that go nowhere and the “satire” is too strident and obvious to work either as comedy or as political commentary to be effective–but as Pilager, Chris Cooper does an impressive job of both channeling George W. Bush while still bringing a sense of humanity to the character.

THE VILLAGE (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): This wasn’t one of the worst films of 2004 solely because it contained perhaps the most obvious “surprise” ending in cinema history. It failed because of a draggy plot, largely stilted performances (although Bryce Dallas Howard’s work was impressive) and writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s obvious belief that he has come up with a work of art instead of an extra-long, extra-crappy “Twilight Zone” episode. Okay, and also because it contained perhaps the most obvious and idiotic “surprise” ending in cinema history. Gluttons for punishment can also enjoy “The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan,” an overlong “documentary” on the director that was made for the Sci-Fi Channel and became briefly infamous when it was revealed just before broadcast that the film, which made all sorts of wild supernatural claims about Shyamalan and his work, was revealed to be nothing more than a hoax designed to spark interest in “The Village.”

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originally posted: 01/15/05 05:25:41
last updated: 01/18/05 08:49:50
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