Anyone who’s sorta into American movies of the last couple of decades knows about Michael Mann. They could also probably tell you about the kind of movies he makes, in a broad sense. Shit about, like, badasses, man! Total pros kickin ass! The last couple of years (maybe a decade and change?) you could even accuse him of going way overboard on the “pro” aspect, choosing to focus rather exclusively on characters with highly cinematic occupations and the extremely efficient ways they engage in them. This reached its apex with PUBLIC ENEMIES, which some people thought might have been better off just being a documentary, so focused was Mann on procedures and accurately recreated TRUE EVENTS!!!
You know who is not like that? LUC BESSON MOTHERFUCKER
This man cares very much about the emotions of his characters, oh yes you best believe it!
Who is this unshaven, yet affable looking slob? You may have heard of obscure cineasts like James Cameron? George Lucas? Luc Besson is basically the European version of them. When it comes to movies, Besson has all the money in Europe. If you’ve in the last decade at your local cinema watched a sleazy action movie set in Europe that somehow had a big international celebrity in it, chances are Besson wrote and/or produced it.
…you know what I mean. Basically cinematic fast food that manages to taste pretty good too. Not as much McDonald’s as that decent kebab place down the road. These, along with the animated ARTHUR movies you can see Besson posing in front of in the first pic, are the man’s bread and butter nowadays. But he is not some garlic eating Michael Bay, non non non! As I said before, he cares very much about the happiness of his characters rather than the beauty of his explosions. CONSIDER:
- THE TRANSPORTER: Jason Statham is a former marine earning a living in the South of France as a wheelman for shady transports. No questions, no opened trunk, no problems! But when he breaks his own rule and finds a beautiful AZN WAIFU in his trunk… perhaps… his heart will be opened as well~?
- UNLEASHED: Jet Li is a feral street fighter, kept caged like a dog by Evil Bob Hoskins! But perhaps… beautiful Octavia from HBO’s Rome and kind magical (blind!!) negro pianist Morgan Freeman will show him the more poetic things in life~?
- TAKEN: Divorcee dad Liam Neeson is gonna fucking slaughter every smelly Albanian in Paris to get his daughter and nearly-worst-character-on-Lost-and-that’s-quite-a-feat Maggie Grace back from sexual slavery! …but not before we learn what a kind and put-upon soul he is in a soulful first thirty minutes where the biggest conflict is that Liam’s pony isn’t as big as the one Maggie’s new stepdad bought her! Ponies~
Yeah, the kickassery may have made you forget it, but there’s a lotta touchy-feeliness in these movies! As my friend Andrew Clarke once put it: “There’s a surprising amount of action in his artsy movies, and an equally surprising amount of artsy in his action.” Now, don’t misunderstand it, though. Besson’s “artsy action movie” is not that sort of Refn/Kubrick atmospheric, low-on-dialogue-high-on-symbolism kinda artsy. It’s a very old-fashioned type of artsy that is not so much “artsy” anymore as it is treacly and (at “best”) Oscar Baity. BIG Emotions! Suffering, sensitive characters pondering the BIG Questions! In his pre-US movies, Besson’s protagonists are just crazy guys who don’t live by society’s ruuuules, man! And maybe they can open up a buttoned-down lady’s heart to the subtle wonder and beauty of life~
In SUBWAY it’s pre-HIGHLANDER Christophe Lambert (already sporting sort of a youthful punk Raiden hairdo) who is a hobo hiding in the subway after stealing some “documents” from a shady businessman after being invited to a cocktail party by beautiful trophy wife Isabelle Adjani for helping her with her groceries (???). Now these “documents” (never explained, by the way) he only stole so that the wife would follow him because he is super in love with her. In the subway he finds a bunch of OTHER hobos that live off of purse-snatchery but dream of making it big with their band (???). SUBWAY is basically a couple of cool chase scenes to go with hobo slapstick and that strange Lambert/Adjani courtship. I don’t even know man. It’s super weird, it’s super 80s, but the actors are actually pretty suave and charming. Along with Besson’s skill at how to set up a chase, it becomes a fascinating the-fuck-will-happen-next kinda movie.
LE GRAND BLEU is Besson going “waaaahhhh waaahhhh I wanted to be ze diver but I had ze accident so now I have to settle for ze direckteeng waaah!” The underwater shots are super beautiful and dolphins are cute and Jean Reno and his mom are funny (did you know Italian mothers are domineering and make spaghetti?) but 168 minutes of Jean Reno, Little Jacques Nocharisma (Quirky Man) and Rosanna Arquette (Buttoned-Up Lady Falling For Quirky Man) palling around on a Sicilian beach is pretty punishing. And the spaghetti looked weirdly white. Were they just eating it with oil? Arquette’s frutti di mare looked good when she and Reno first meet though.
NIKITA is probably the movie where it simply all clicked. Anne Parillaud’s (Mrs. Besson for a while) Nikita is definitely a QuirkyWoman but she’s also an irresponsible crackhead who gets good ‘n fucked up by the government as she’s trained to be an assassin. The relatively few action scenes are clear, tense and badass. Nikita starts out as a piece of shit, but she gets pooped on so hard that it’s tough not to root for her.
After NIKITA, Besson moved to sorta-Hollywood with LEON*(/THE PROFESSIONAL, depending which cut you’ve seen) and THE FIFTH ELEMENT. It’s interesting to note how the role of quirkster post-NIKITA starts being taken by the women, who pull the buttoned-down men out of their ruts. Could it be a reflection of Besson’s subconscious desires? Before he made it big he was the rebel, the artist, givin’ it to the boring Euro-establishment. As he grew in power (and responsibility), he perhaps started longing for some muse to pull him out of his routine. It’s perhaps telling that he married two of his leading ladies briefly (Parillaud and Jovovich).
Luc, mon pôte, I hope you are happy. Or depressed. Look, just whatever mood you were in when you decided that this was a good idea:
*Along with NIKITA, probably the best sentimental/badass Besson combo. I’ll give LEON the edge for its hammy Gary Oldman villain.