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The Besson Touch: Colombiana (2011) & Taken (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, September 4, 2011 10:02am | Post a Comment
 columbiana poster  

I caught both of these films the past week, Colombiana at the theater and Taken on blu-ray. The former was directed by Olivier Megaton, the latter by Pierre Morel, but it's the scenarist as auteur who interests me. Although both were co-written by Robert Mark Kamen, I mean the other scenarist who also served as the producer, Luc Besson. If there's something like pure cinema, Besson specializes in pure entertainment. He's unconcerned with any realworld attachment to his cinematic diegeses. His heroes exist in a hermetic reality where all the laws of physics are on their side, cooperating with whatever stunt they're performing, ensuring their success. The only moral code is to be the one performing the violence, not receiving it. This recently resulted in a protest from Colombian-Americans regarding the Besson-world Colombia, filled only with really bad drug dealers killing a couple of really bad drug dealers who happen to love their daughter. Loving little girls is about the only good act in Besson morality, no matter what else one might do for a living (cf. The Professional or Wasabi). Typically that love is expressed through teaching the girl how to perform violence (La Femme Nikita), or to use your professional killing skills to protect her (again, The Professional). In other words, love is violence. 

The present examples are no exception: Taken is about a retired black ops hatchetman for the US going on a rampage through France to rescue his kidnapped daughter from Albanian slave-traders. Colombiana is about the aforementioned daughter from Bolota escaping to Chicago where she meets up with her assassin uncle, who trains her to be a hired killer -- the purpose of which is to eventually exact revenge on the people who killed her parents. Besson, of course, loves assassins, particularly of the young, lithe, winsome and female variety. But that's not what really sets his cornball action tales apart; it's his little flourishes of perversity that I'm calling the Besson Touch.

Consider Colombiana: (1) In trying to put across to his niece how the lack of a good education can lead to undisciplined violence, the uncle pulls out a huge revolver and shoots a random person driving by, causing mass chaos around a school. She chooses to go to school, lesson learned. (2) When one of the bad guys is trying to talk the girl into giving up a disc with damning info about his boss, she stabs a dagger through his hand. That's not perverse, I guess, but the fact that she pulls it from between her legs in an up-close shot is. (3) As an adult, our female hero needs the location of her target, which is known by the CIA. In order to enlist the aid of a basically decent FBI agent, she threatens to kill a member of his family each week until she has the location. 

Taken has two instances of the Touch, with the second a real doozy, surpassing any in Colombiana: (1) The hero doesn't just torture one of the slavers by electrically charging rods shoved through the dude's kneecaps in order to extract some information (if you haven't guessed, info extraction is a recurring motif in the Besson canon), he openly brags that this is the American way of torturing. But Besson isn't making a realworld critique here, just enjoying the bravado involved in the same way one might be entertained by John Wayne leading a cavalry. (2) An old French friend from the hero's assassin days has become a desk-sitting bureaucrat who knows something about the whereabouts of the slave-traders. The bureaucrat won't give up the info, because his bosses are tied somehow to the crime ring (all French officials are evil in this film, as are the Albanians). The hero doesn't just threaten his friend's family, but comes for dinner and shoots the guy's wife in the arm with the next one pointed at her forehead if no address is forthcoming. And the children are waiting targets in the other room. Before her European vacation, the daughter was living with her mom and wealthy stepfather. They both love her, but aren't willing to lay waste to Paris and shoot an innocent woman to save her virginity. Whatever problems the girl might've had with her father at the beginning of the film, she's daddy's girl by the end. That's Besson love.

I haven't seen all of his films, and maybe it's as elusive as the Lubitsch Touch, but details such as sympathetic slaughter, an occasional pedophiliac timbre, despicable heroes and the like all make what would be merely hackneyed plots in another's hands something special in Besson's. His goal is to have the audience explicitly rooting for depravity, without the pretend justifications of the average Hollywood vigilante film. We should feel dirty enjoying his films. He definitely deserves being called an action auteur.

Relevant Tags

Taken (2), Colombiana (2), Luc Besson (1)