The Best Movie Ever: Luc Besson
Another year, another two or three movies from Luc Besson. The writer/director/producer of some of the most popular and critically acclaimed action movies of the last couple decades is also one of the most prolific mainstream filmmakers around, writing and producing multiple films per year and finding time to direct them once in a while too. Earlier in 2014 Besson co-wrote the Kevin Costner thriller 3 Days to Kill, later this summer he's directing a godlike Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, and this weekend he's releasing Brick Mansions, the American remake of the groundbreaking French thriller District B13, which introduced the world to Parkour and changed the way chase scenes have been filmed for the last ten years.
We charged CraveOnline's film critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold, Fred Topel and Brian Formo – to pick which of Luc Besson's several dozen movies qualifies as his best work. We think it speaks well of Luc Besson that none of them picked the same movie. Check out their picks in this week's installment of The Best Movie Ever, then vote for your own favorite Luc Besson movie at the bottom of the page.
Eventually, the Sylvester Stallone franchise The Expendables will spin-off into The ExpendaBelles (because you know, kicking ass is gender exclusive). But the first, and still the best, "expenda-belle" was Anne Parrillaud in Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita. Coincidentally, that's also my favorite Luc Besson film.
Parrillaud plays a young drug addict who lives just a squatter stone's throw from the streets. To society she was already expendable before she coldly shoots a cop during a drugstore heist. Her detached death-wish killing, combined with a lack of any personal ties, saves her from her serving out her jail sentence. She's removed and trained to be a government assassin.
Parrillaud was the first of four actresses who've played Besson's Nikita. (Bridget Fonda also crawled into tight spots in the English-language remake Point of No Return; then there were two television programs; the first retained the French title and starred Peta Wilson, the next dropped "la femme" for Maggie Q, airing as "Nikita".) I also think that she's been the best. Partially because the waifish Parrillaud is the most feral of the bunch (at introduction, she's only slightly more womanly than Francois Truffaut's wild child in L'Enfant Sauvage). But more importantly, Nikita 1.0 is the Besson version that most focuses on that "femme" part.
For all its badassery, the original La Femme Nikita is equal parts assassin flick and social conditioning ballet. While Parillaud looks great holding a gun like it's a fashion accessory to her slinky dresses, her femininity isn't defined by her ability to wear a dress or put on makeup (shout out to a great scene with French film icon Jeanne Moreau giving Nikita lady tips). Here, Nikita's femininity takes shape when she is able to take care of herself just enough that she can care for someone else more.
God, I love Luc Besson. He's a rare kind of auteur, placing his unmistakable stamp on everything he touches, whether he directed, wrote or produced it or any combination of the three. Most of his films are modestly budgeted, character-driven action thrillers (Taken, Unleashed), and some are weirdo farce concoctions that grab inspiration from every genre imaginable (Subway, The Fifth Element), but they all share certain qualities that the screenwriting major in me admires. He respects his heroes and villains as people, and yet he simultaneously finds the worlds they live in utterly ridiculous. But if Jason Statham treats the ludicrous grease fight in The Transporter seriously, so shall we, and the film is all the more glorious for the mish-mash.
So it's strange that I find myself gravitating towards his perhaps most cynical film to label as the best in his filmography. Léon: The Professional stars Jean Reno as a quiet, reclusive, almost childlike man who just happens to be the best assassin in New York City. After an act of ill-advised kindness, he finds himself the unlikely father figure of a young Natalie Portman (in her first role), who encourages him to finally connect with another human being – how charming! – by teaching her how to kill a man – how ethically dubious! – so she can take revenge on the spectacularly corrupt detective (Gary Oldman, never more maniacal) who murdered the rest of her family.
Léon: The Professional was released as "The Professional" when it was originally released in America, which actually makes a lot of sense: the film was drastically cut down to be palatable to American audiences who might scoff at Besson's romantic subplot between Portman and Reno, a man 33 years her senior (plus she was only 13 at the time). That American version is a solid but plot-driven; Léon: The Professional truly comes alive when the characters are allowed to explore their taboo connection a little and embrace the impressively soulful characters Reno and Portman create for each other. It's as innocent as this romance could possibly be, but their environment is atypically vicious for a Besson joint, filled with homicidal maniacs, deserving victims and so-called friends who make betrayal seem like the kindest thing in the world. Léon: The Professional ends with one of the great shootouts, and one of the most downbeat conclusions of any action movie around, but it ends exactly the way it should: perfectly. It's Besson's most thoughtful, grounded and involving film. But admittedly The Transporter 2 is his most entertaining.
The phrase “Luc Besson Film” is both a declaration of ownership, and a genre unto itself. Whether he's the co-writer, the producer, or the director, Luc Besson films all have a similarly crime-riddled, slightly comedic, broadly action-oriented Eurotrash sensibility that is unique in the world. He's been behind relatively gritty films like Léon: The Professional, arch art films like Angel-A, and broad comedies like The Family. He even masterminded a series of kid flicks based on Arthur and the Invisibles, and made an historical action drama about Joan of Arc called The Messenger. And while these are genre disparate films, they all feel a bit the same. Serious, but farcical. Spectacular, but kind of cartoony. Steely, yet friendly. And all boldly cheesy. It's hard not to like them, even when they suck.
Nostalgia is dictating that I choose the Besson-directed 1997 sci-fi spectacular The Fifth Element as his best. It is a bold, colorful, original film that seems all the more miraculous as time passes. I'm not sure if a film like The Fifth Element could even be made in today's filmmaking climate. Sci-fi and fantasy are bigger than ever, but we live in the Age of Property Adaptation, and the notion of a wholly original sci-fi film (not ported over from a YA novel or comic book) seems very rare. The Fifth Element is a goofy, near-slapstick adventure film about a put-upon cab driver (Bruce Willis) who finds himself having to protect a comely alien (Milla Jovovich) who just may be the key to fending off an encroaching planet-sized alien entity. The Fifth Element came at a time when movie special effects were kind of at their height, using a combination of CGI and practical effects to create an eye-stroking world of crisp weirdness. Add to all this Gary Oldman as a limping, molasses-sweating weirdo with an indeterminate accent, and you've got a big-budget action spectacular that reads like a cult film.
All my apologies to Taken, the wonderfully irresponsible, Liam-Neeson-Can-Kick-More-French-Ass-Than-Anyone film from 2008. It was a photo finish.
If you limited me to only the movies Luc Besson directed, it would have been much easier to narrow it down. He’s a solid filmmaker but probably peaked with a certain ‘90s assassin story (take your pick). Expanding it to movies he’s produced opens it up to a number of classics that have all spawned their own franchises – Taken, The Transporter, this one. Only a few though. Most of the movies he produces are just crap cashing in on his name, but some of them are innovative new voices in action that he shepherds to the screen, and they still include that quirky spark of Besson’s Frenchness. Something tells me Besson agrees with me that “because it’s awesome” is the only reason a movie needs to exist.
It was still close between Transporter 2, the most outrageous and fun of the series, and my final answer, District B13, which edges out the rest for actually bringing an entirely new form of martial art to the screen. David Belle invented Parkour, free running where you bounce off walls and hang from rafters to avoid your pursuers. We’d seen versions of this incorporated into movies like The Matrix, but Belle gave it a name and developed elaborately choreographed fights and chases so we could see its full potential. And he runs through B13 because it’s awesome.
Besson’s team crafted a suitably basic story to display as much Parkour as possible. Belle is teamed up with Cyril Rafaelli as a martial artist cop who enters the walled off district to prevent a bomb from going off. As if Belle needed more walls, the entire movie was walled in. It’s a shame this didn’t become a lucrative Parkour franchise, but the sequel District B13 Ultimatum really dropped the ball by having less Parkour or fighting in it. The American remake Brick Mansions can get us back on track. My full review is coming this week.