I really need to stop looking at the director’s name whenever Luc Besson is co-writing the screenplay and producing a film. Seeing the adverts and realizing that Olivier Transporter 3 Megaton was at the helm, expectations for Colombiana were mediocre at best. If anything, the promise (and realization) of Zoe Saldana’s character being allergic to pants was enough to get my attention. But only a few minutes into the film, that issue was merely icing on top of a surprisingly well-conceived cake.
The movie begins in 1992, in Colombia of course. A 9-year old Cataleya Restrepo (played at that age spectacularly by Amandla Stenberg) gets a quick goodbye speech from her hitman father, right before he and her mother are gunned down in front of her. Cataleya is then forced to run and escape the same fate, done via an excellent parkour-filled chase through Colombian back alleys which are the spitting image of the Brazilian favelas so famously depicted in films like City of God and Fast Five.
Shifting forward 15 years, and under the patronage of her Uncle (Cliff Curtis), Cataleya has followed in her father’s footsteps and her thirst for revenge hasn’t wavered one bit. The only distraction is a romantic entanglement with an artist/neighbor (Michael Vartan) and of course, this is where a predictable slip up allows the FBI to get closer to catching her. But aside from that convenient plot device, the story progresses with the kind of purpose and intensity one has come to expect from Besson.
And actually, while only time will tell if this statement holds up, Colombiana is this generation’s Léon. Now, before the hate mail flows in, allow me to explain. Both are written by Luc Besson. Both films involve an adolescent female protagonist whose family is gunned down, thrusting them into the business of revenge. Both women seek the help of a seasoned professional (sorry for the pun) and won’t take no for an answer. Both films see our leads outwit their human targets, and in turn the police (or in this case FBI). Even the endings are somewhat similar in their tones.
None of this is too surprising. Rumors of a sequel to the 1994 classic that launched Natalie Portman’s career and contains one of my favorite Gary Oldman performances (it’s a long list), have been circulating for some time. Whether this satisfies Besson’s curiosity about what Portman’s character would have been like when she was older or not is something only he can answer, but from an audience’s perspective, that’s very much what Colombiana feels like. Even the soundtrack is a wink at this being an homage to the original, with covers of both Portishead’s “Glory Box” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” featured prominently.
Still, while there are a veritable gaggle of similarities, the film stands on its own and does so quite well for the most part. Saldana is anything but tough to look at, and she handles the emotion of the character and the physicality very well. Her kills are executed nicely and some good thought and fight choreography went into most scenes.
Where the film is a bit of a letdown is in the supporting cast and their development. I love Cliff Curtis more than the next guy, but he’s given much more of the Danny Aiello role than the Jean Reno and it would have been nice to see another scene or two with the younger Cataleya beginning her training. Michael Vartan isn’t given much to do but enjoy being pressed up against Saldana (tell me he didn’t get paid for this) and Lennie James is your stock FBI special agent. None of that is their fault per se, but the characters just don’t feel as dynamic and iconic as they could/should be.
The biggest disappointment is in the villain … or should I say in either of the two people basically set up to be the villain. It’s never made clear whether Cataleya cares more about killing the drug lord who ordered her parents’ death or his chief lieutenant for doing the killing. Adding to that issue is that neither actor will be remembered for their characterization; sure it’s unfair to compare most actors to Gary Oldman, but playing the bad guy should allow actors to have more fun in carving out their own little niche. Paul Giamatti did it wonderfully in Shoot ‘Em Up, Jason Patric had The Losers, and Javier Bardem took home the Oscar for No Country for Old Men. It can be done, it just wasn’t in this case.
Still, any fans of Besson’s will definitely enjoy what’s going on in Colombiana. The action is well thought out and executed, Saldana is ridiculously hot, and the film delivers all the beats required in its genre (even though it’s only rated PG-13). Hopefully, audiences will see it the same way, allowing for a sequel where Portman and Saldana cross paths; now that’s a concept actually worthy of consideration. Get to it, Besson.
Colombiana hits theaters on August 26, 2011 and is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, intense sequences of action, sexuality and brief strong language.