Colombiana (Two Stars)
U.S.: Olivier Megaton, 2011
She’s young. She’s tough. She’s agile. She’s half-naked. And she’s definitely deadlier than the male — at least in this movie.
Zoë Saldana, who was kind of blue in James Cameron‘s Avatar, plays producer-writer Luc Besson‘s notion of a rock ‘em sock ‘em action heroine in Colombiana — which means that she’s often undressed, drop dead gorgeous and frequently engaged in killing people. Lots of people die in Colombiana, many of them at the hands of Zoë’s character, hit woman Catelaya Restrepo, and they usually shuffle off mortal coils in ways as picturesque as Besson and director Olivier Megaton and co-writer Robert Mark Kamen (the Karate Kid movies) can dream up: eaten by sharks in a Scarface-style drug lord’s orgy den/swimming pool, or going down in alleged safe houses in hailstorms of bullets.
The first casualties are Catelaya’s parents — captured and slain by a Colombian cocaine cartel in the first big action scene, when she‘s only ten (and played by child actress Amandla Stenberg.) But most of the others are just preparation, or practice– part of a furious quest for revenge by Saldana’s Catelaya, who decides on a career in murder and vengeance as a ten-year-old and is helped along by her gangster Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis), who also makes sure she gets a good Chicago parochial school education. (Those must be some confessions.)
In later life, when she gets going on her assassin career, Catelaya’s “victims” are mostly drug miscreants and scumbags whom she kills in order to get to her parents’ killers, the fiendish drug lord Don Luis (Beto Benites) and his main associate/torpedo Marco (Jordi Molla), two crook/killers who are being protected by the C. I. A., in exchange for information which Don Luis never quite provides. This may all seem kind of ludicrous, and it is — though Besson and Megaton try to keep things barreling along at such a blistering clip that we won’t notice. They can’t. The whole movie is ridiculous — though perhaps its unfair to criticize this film for not possessing something it clearly doesn’t want: a lick of sense.
There’s not a scene in Colombiana that isn’t nonsensical in some way or another, and the only actor who manages a really convincing performance is Lennie James as dour FBI special agent Ross. But it’s also clear that the filmmakers aren’t really trying to avoid nonsense. They’re aggressively pursuing it. They’re throwing in a little Salt, a little Lara Croft, a little Underworld, U.S.A., a little Countess of Monte Cristo, and whipping up the whole senseless shmeer into an over-edited frenzy of preposterous hyper-activity.
Saldana and Stenberg make the absurdities somewhat watchable. Stenberg spins her limber way though extreme action scenes of parkour with little Catelaya seemingly leaping from rooftop to rooftop to sidewalk to street, pursued through sunny Bogota by Colombian cocaine cartel thugs, and as Saldana slithers and shakes and strips though slam-bang scenes of firefight and assassination and arguments with Uncle Emilio.
The movie, which is shot very well by Oliver Stapleton (though I thought the Bogota scenes were a little too hazy) just keeps piling it on. Besson and Kamen and Megaton somehow imagine a prison where prisoner Zoë pulls open vents, crawls through crawlspaces, kills another scumbag and escapes out the window, or where she blows up buildings single-handedly while being besieged by what seems several SWAT teams, or where she engages in wild kung fu, feeds her victims to the sharks, or breaks into Don Luis’ hacienda and takes on everybody in sight — while dropping Catelaya orchids everywhere as her signature. And discussing her feelings with artist/lover Danny Delanay (Michael Vartan).
But this isn’t supposed to be an endless hallucination brought on by too much cocaine. It’s a carefully plotted mass entertainment, intended for our amusement. We were not much amused, though at least we weren’t looking at our watch every ten minutes. There’s some crazy fun to be gotten out of all this, for someone, but it’s the kind of fun that leaves you feeling a little ashamed of yourself. Since when did it become a rule of thumb that action movies has to be so wildly over the top, so utterly senseless — all baloney, all the time?
Director Olivier Megaton, ex-graffiti artist and director of Transporter 3, gave himself his curious last name as an allusion to the Hiroshima A-Bomb, which I hope didn’t also inspire his career in film. He clearly doesn’t want to be confused with Olivier Assayas, though “Megaton” opens up so many pun opportunities for vicious critics that one would think that, in self defense, he might switch his name back to Fontana. Then again, anyone who‘d make a movie like Colombiana clearly has no fear of anything — especially movie critics.
As for Luc Besson, whose curious Franco-American work I’ve been following since his dialogue-less apocalyptic fable Le Dernier Combat in 1984, he seems be able to knock off movies like this in his sleep, maybe especially in his sleep. Every once in a while he does a sort of “serious” picture (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc) or a sort of art film (Angel-A), but he seems most comfortable making movies (or getting others to make them) like Colombiana — the only film I can think of recently where the publicists carefully informed us how to spell the title. That’s C-O-L-O-M-B-I-A-N-A. (They should have given us a Spell-check alert on “Amandla Stenberg,“ which I’ll bet came out as Amanda Steinberg somewhere.)
As for Zoë Saldana and the movie’s attempts to make her a female Arnold Schwarzenegger, or maybe the next Angelina Jolie, I’d rather see her taking off her clothes in a romantic comedy or drama any day, or even an action movie with a sensible script and less preposterous scenes. That might be fun to watch.