Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 05, 2011 3:10 pm 
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An orchid on a dead man's chest

Move over, Uma and Angelina. Make way for Zoe -- Zoe Saldana. As Cataleya, she represents a new breed of small, lean, kick-ass Latina female action superstar. This movie is slick grindhouse stuff with tantalizing hints that it's a Tarantino movie with bad dialogue spoken by swarthy South Americans. I cannot in all honesty recommend it to you unless you want to have a couple hours of mindless violent fun. This is a sharp new product from the factory of Eurotrashmeister Luc Besson, who usually produces but co-wrote this, and has written a lot of stuff, including a couple of Transporters, and whose career high points are probably Le dernier combat (his arty debut); The Big Blue, a self-indulgent, cultish water tale; and the grandmom of kick-ass girl killer movies, La Femme Nikita. What's with the name of this director? Well, he started life as a graffiti artist, and this nom-de-spraycan comes from his birthday, when Hiroshima was bombed. His given name was Olivier Fontana. Oliver Fountain. It's got no punch, know what I mean?

Like any good superhero, Cataleya has a memorable formation story, where as a little girl in a prim school uniform (Amandla Stenberg), she witnesses her parents being assassinated by crime boss Don Luis (Beto Benites) and his vicious right-hand man, Marco (Jordi Molla). Snapping into action herself, she immediately stabs a gangster in the hand and whips out the window, giving a startling display of rubbery parkour, like a mini Tarzan's Jane swinging on vines as she leaps over buildings and rooftops, sends colorful spices flying in jumbled marketplaces and escapes -- to the US Embassy, where she vomits up the computer data chip her dad has slipped her just before dying. And asked by the State Department musclehead if she knows what it is, says, "Yes. My passport." Her father has also provided her with an orchid necklace -- the Cataleya flower is her name and her talisman -- and the scribbled address of her uncle in Chicago. This sun-burnt half-hour prologue sun-burnt is as good as anything in Fast Five, and, in conception, has appealing hints of Tarantino.

The computer chip really is her passport, apparently, because little Cataleya is immediately sent to Miami, where she quickly gives her U.S. government handlers the slip and joins her uncle in Chicago. Fast forward to fifteen years later and she's become Zoe Saldana. Smart, prim, rubbery little Cataleya is now a slinky professional assassin who moonlights as a serial killer, sort of as a super-personal hobby, let's say, because in her spare time she's methodically bumping off all the men involved in her parents' murder, one by one, and drawing a big cataleya orchid on their chests. But the FBI doesn't know what all this is about, and the CIA won't talk to the chief Fed on the case, Ross (Lennie James), though Ross is such a charismatic shamus he actually earns a tete-a-tete with Cataleya near the end.

Colombiana, like Cataleya, has no soul, but is quick on its feet. It's a succession of kick-ass action sequences, capers in which Cataleya avoids her gangland enemies and law enforcement and keeps on swiftly avenging her parents' deaths. These capers are great. The writing by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, who for what it's worth worked on writing all the Karate Kid movies, isn't quite so good at working out an overarching design, nor does it pause for some fascinating but interminable dialogue as Tarantino would do, to give us a chance to catch our breath. Besson and Kamen wrote a series of big set pieces. They didn't create glue to to hold them together because they've got Zoe. But beyond its high octane action value, Colombiana has certain limitations.

Like a lead character in Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva, Cataleya has a cool pad. Only it's kind of bare and instead of neat cars and sound equipment, it's got little other than a class-walled shower, a wall of monitoring devices, and a dark arsenal of weaponry, much of which will be fired, or blown up, in the course of the film.

In one of her first big onscreen capers, Cataleya breaks into a jail by crashing into a cop car and pretending to be drunk. This intricately planned operation stymies the authorities because she has come in with no identification. The ten-minute-plus sequence is impressive and dashing. Another action highlight, near the end, is a mano-a-mano with one of Cataley's chief gang enemies in a big bathroom. It goes on a little long for my taste, but in doing so it goes most Bourne-style hand-to-hand struggles one better.

Zoe Saldana is lithe and slippery, and her character oozes in and out of air conditioning ducts like a snake. Wherever she goes, there's always a transom to slip through. Cataleya has an Achilles heel -- a weakness for an Anglo artist boyfriend called Danny (Michael Vartan ) whom she just uses for sex. That's her plan, anyway. He wants to know more about her, like where she's from, what she does, or her name. She sleeps in one night at his place and he snaps her photo with his smart phone and before you know it, she's been traced. I won't tell you how: beats me. I missed that detail, like a lot of others you won't need to know, like how the South American gang lords and Cataleya can both blow up a lot of their headquarters without blowing up themselves, or how Cataleya plans her eleborate caper-murders, or how everybody sort of seems to like her even though she's nothing but a murdering machine. It has something to do with eye shadow, I think, and how she looks in a black body suit. She also thinks of James Bondish ways of killing off victims. She plants her two mean hungry dogs in a truck to murder one, and feeds another to his own pet sharks, planting him over their tank and making him shed a drop of blood. I guess most of these people really are bad guys. We hardly get to know them.

Colombiana was shot in Chicago, New Orleans, and Mexico City; there are rumors France contributed some shots. Romain Lacourbas' sunny widescreen cinematography is handsome throughout.

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