“You done me wrong – and you’re going to pay!”
How many times have we witnessed the impulse for revenge? In the movies, just consider Michael Corleone, Kill Bill 1 & 2, and fully half of Clint Eastwood’s impressive oeuvre. And in real life there’s Afghanistan, 9/11 and the ever-mounting body count as despots fall from Tunisia to Syria. Depending on whether you’re on the giving or receiving end, a fat slice of revenge can seem like bloody justice.
Audiences have a demonstrated appetite for payback on the screen: Just this summer apes go wild after they’ve had it with the lab experiments, and folks in the Old West strike back when aliens pluck off their neighbors wholesale. Since celebrity trouble and movie trends seem to bundle in threes – where’s the new revenge blockbuster? Well, your seat is waiting.
Colombiana just opened with a stylish, bloody bang from writer-producer Luc Besson. He mines familiar territory with a female protagonist holding her own against long odds (Le Femme Nikita, Leon the Professional, The Fifth Element). This time the heroine is Zoe Saldana, whose character, Cataleya, offers an astonishing response to a traumatic childhood.
Besson has his bets covered in this Smackdown! Having co-written and produced the very popular revenge-fest Taken, from 2008, he can’t lose either way. This Defending Champion features some of the worst characters ever deserving the fate awaiting them. Liam Neeson is the protagonist with a lethal grievance. Grab your flak jacket, put away the moral compass and be glad somebody else will be cleaning the carpets.
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Cataleya, our Colombiana, witnesses the murder of her parents as a little girl in Bogota. We learn she is not the type to turn the other cheek and will seek her revenge. She encounters one of don Luis Salazar’s henchmen at the kitchen table; Cataleya puts a carving knife through his hand and begins the best chase sequence you may see in years.
Some children learn singing and softball; Cataleya tackles hand-to-hand combat and advanced weaponry. “I want to be a killer,” she tells Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) in Chicago, and reluctantly, he teaches her. Cataleya is an apt pupil but no angel. By the time the story springs forward 15 years, she’s left two dozen bodies, each bearing her calling card drawn on the chest of every payback: a cataleya orchid.
She wants to quit after taking down don Luis, but there are complications from the FBI, CIA and a boyfriend (Michael Vartan) more hunky than smart. There’s a bloody, horrific showdown, and Cataleya’s work is done.
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The Defending Champion
Bryan Mills (Neeson) recoils from the steep price of his commitment to duty. He quit his job with the CIA to reconnect with his teenage daughter, Kim, believing his time with the Company had taken his best years and ruined his marriage to Lenore (Famke Janssen). Although Mills describes his old work as free-range “prevention,” the years undercover taught him a rough business.
Those skills come in handy after Kim and a girlfriend land in Paris and are abducted by a ring of Albanian sex-traffickers. Kim manages to scream out critical clues on her cell phone. The ringleader picks up that phone, and hears an awful prophesy from Mills: “If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I’ll look for you. I will find you… and I will kill you.”
Mr. Low-life should have listened. Without delay, without remorse, Mills goes to Paris and serves up a large order of payback with red sauce. His friend, Jean-Claude, warns: “Try not to make a mess.” Not a chance.
Don’t be confused by the credits: While Pierre Morel directed Taken, and the intriguingly named Olivier Megaton directed Colombiana, both movies bear the indelible thumbprint of Luc Besson. He wrote both with Robert Mark Kamen, and both benefit from his experienced eye for brisk, well-staged violence. These heroes and villains are matter-of-fact about the extreme circumstances bringing them together. Against that framework, it’s tempting to sidetrack conscience and go along for the ride.
Besson’s success attracts the necessary talent for his creative approach. There’s not a parent alive who doesn’t recognize the regret and controlled outrage simmering within Bryan Mills. Neeson is a fierce father, believable even in his extreme responses. His supporting cast in Taken (Maggie Grace, Leland Orser, Janssen) performs well in roles thin on context. A minor side-story involving a singer much like Beyonce provides a first-look at Mills’ hard skills and ties up a loose end in the plot.
As well made as Taken is, Colombiana is the more highly evolved action picture. The pace never lets up; the physical business is a marvel; but the acting offers the big difference. As intense and convincing as Neeson is in Taken, Colombiana should make Zoe Saldana a major movie star, if she isn’t there already from her performances in Avatar and Star Trek. And while Neeson pretty much carries his whole film, Saldana actually risks being upstaged by Amandla Stenberg, the girl playing the younger Cataleya, in a splendid debut. Cliff Curtis as her uncle, and Lennie James as the frustrated FBI man on the case also give strong performances in small, important roles.
I need to say this: Extreme action films are not for everyone, but they satisfy a large audience. Taken pulled in roughly a quarter-billion dollars in box office and video sales. Its DVD offers an unrated version that includes even rougher stuff cut from the theatrical release. Not surprisingly, a sequel is on the way, with Liam Neeson and Maggie Grace signed on.
I’m not sure there will be a sequel made of Colombiana. This movie hits all the right notes in Luc Besson’s creative vision: a sympathetic character, sharply defined offenses, responses administered strongly and decisively. No question, Colombiana will be a popular movie, but if story matters, what’s left for Cataleya? We know her back story, but who’s left to settle the score with?
Perhaps none of that will matter if strong box office predicts a profitable sequel. I know I’d watch. Both movies will be seen and seen again. For now, our winner, Colombiana, is the better-acted, better-produced movie within Luc Besson’s formula — if that matters very much to actionistas. He has extended his creative reach.