By Drew Taylor | The Playlist August 25, 2011 at 7:28AM
"Colombiana," an ornately florid title for a hopelessly pedestrian Euro-trash action movie, has been marketed and sold around various images of its comely star (Zoe Saldana) brandishing firearms while in her underwear. As far as exploitation hooks go, it's about as old as the format itself, and just as dependable. But "Colombiana," with its rapid-fire editing, humdrum supporting cast, and choked knot of superfluous subplots, doesn't have the thematic incisiveness of an exploitation movie, or the playfully go-for-broke, hands-in-the-air sense of naughty impishness.
If the movie -- especially in its opening stretch which features an innocent child protagonist watching her parents get brutally murdered (with the accompanying vow for bloody revenge) -- seems familiar, well, that's because it is. "Colombiana" is at least loosely based on a script that Luc Besson had written for a follow-up to "The Professional," entitled "Mathilda" (after Natalie Portman's character). Since that would-be sequel was embroiled in legal issues that blockaded its further development (and "Colombiana" director Olivier Megaton had already been tasked, by Besson, to helm the sequel should it ever move forward), the creative team said "Fuck it," and decided to make a movie just slightly different but pretty much the same.
Instead of a young American girl tutored by an aging French hitman, though, "Colombiana" is first set in Colombia, with the aforementioned parent-murdering (the little girl's father was involved in some shady cartel business). The little girl then goes to Chicago where she's taken in by her equally shady uncle (Cliff Curtis). The little girl, named Cataleya Restrepo, after a rare Amazonian orchid, wants her uncle to teach her how to murder, which he rejects by randomly firing his gun at a passing car (and presumably killing a perfectly innocent pedestrian). "Is that what you want?" he asks her, passion bubbling in his Al Pacino-in-"Scarface"-accented voice. She says no, she'll wait, but it's a shocking, clumsy moment that the audience barely has any time to recover from.
The movie then snaps forward 15 years, to Los Angeles, where Cataleya is now grown and carrying out a cleverly elaborate hit job in a local prison. Her target is Latin American, and she brands the corpse with her signature (a curlicue scribble of her namesake), so we assume that this victim had something to do with her parents' murder. It adds a juicy jolt of thrills to the ingeniously plotted maneuver, which has all the hallmarks of a great "Mission: Impossible" jaunt, with the added bonus of Saldana pouring herself into a slinky black catsuit. But later we learn that the assassination carried out in the jail is just a random murder. Cataleya hasn't grown up to become an avenging angel as much as a stone cold killer, murdering folks for money. It's not terribly noble and leaves little for us to sympathize with, since by now we've established that she's a couple of defining character traits away from joining the cast of the next "Expendables."
After the prison hit, the movie becomes derailed, time and time again, by an exhaustive and wholly inane subplot involving an FBI Agent (Lennie James, constantly flustered) on the trail of our (anti?) heroine, even though his casual sexism initially disqualifies her from consideration. "Our killer can't be a woman," he says, gravely. The joke is supposed to be on him, since we've just witnessed her do a bunch of incredible (and incredibly cool) shit, but also rings hollow. Unlike "The Professional," which despite its occasionally pedophilic overtones between hitman and little girl, was also a genuinely empowering coming-of-age story with some feminist sentiment wrapped snugly around it, "Colombiana" is pure trash, without any pretense or subtext or thematic underpinnings. This is made abundantly clear by a series of clunky scenes, sequenced back-to-back, where Saldana struts around her apartment in her barely-there underwear, takes a shower, and provocatively sucks on a cherry-red lollipop. (And no, this doesn't count as "humor," another element of exploitation cinema that "Colombiana" is sadly lacking.)
The main thrust of the story, though, involves her attempting to get back at her parents' killers, who have been secreted away in New Orleans after working with the CIA, in tracking down Cataleya. With this setup, the noose should be sufficiently tight – both the FBI and the Colombian drug guys are now after our girl – but the movie's pacing is slack, with long (but still superficial) sequences devoted to Saldana interacting with her passionate artist boyfriend, played by one of the world's most milquetoast actors, Michael Vartan (J.J. Abrams' "Alias"). "Tell me something about yourself," he commands. "I get lonely sometimes," she replies. Deep.
By the time the film comes to life towards the end, with Saldana going H*A*M on the cartoonish baddies' compound, you could really care less, since we've already seen her murder a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi schemer by dropping him into a shark tank (sadly, the film's PG-13 rating robs the sequence of its potential gory-good oomph) while wearing a James Bond-ian wetsuit. It doesn't help that Megaton, who previously helmed the third installment of the forgettable "The Transporter" franchise (again, underneath Besson's watchful eye), directs the action sequences principally with an eye towards chaos – the scenes chopped up and cut together in a way that doesn't suggest spatial relationships as much as the raw fury of gunfire, dead bodies, and exploding pillars of earth or plaster. His directorial methods could charitably be described as schizophrenic, since the only time his shooting and editorial style seems to calm itself is when it lingers over Saldana's toned-for-battle body.
And it's a shame that Saldana, such a delight in largely thankless roles from "Star Trek" and "Avatar," couldn't have secured herself a better starring vehicle than this. With her almond-shaped eyes and physique that suggest she was chipped away from a single slab of granite, she exudes strength and an eerie, interior calm that she never gets to properly showcase because she's too busy undressing or blowing things up (Megaton seems particularly enamored with the way flames from a fireball can shoot forth and lick the camera lens). There's an open-endedness to "Colombiana" that suggests room for a sequel. Hopefully Saldana will be busy doing anything else.
Time and time again, the movie recalled "Hanna," a similar movie from earlier this year about a little girl seeking violent retribution. But "Hanna" was directed artfully, with an eye towards the surreal. In its cubist abstraction and thematic conviction, "Hanna" became something special, unburdened by the mundane, often times laughable procedural elements that weigh "Colombiana" down so heavily (at one point the lead investigator gets shut out of a CIA database for looking up a flower, and many of his computer programs look ripped out of "Enemy of the State," complete with overactive "zooming" graphics). "Hanna" knew that it was the story of a girl who becomes a woman, and that the revelatory path that gets her there is what's important for an audience to connect with. "Colombiana," on the other hand, presents an unctuous character at its center and asks you to root for her simply because she's gorgeous. Sometimes, though, that's just not enough. [D]