“The Fifth Element” (1997)
So what do you do when the critical and commercial world are both at your feet and you can get more or less anything made? Well, if you're Luc Besson, you embark on a bloated, sprawling sci-fi epic that's been something of a passion project since you wrote the initial story at age 16. At the time of the film's release in 1997, "The Fifth Element" was the single most expensive film ever produced in Europe but it became, until the release of “The Intouchables” in 2011, also the most domestically profitable French film of all time, and apparently is still the most internationally successful. Like all of Besson’s work, it’s a wild mishmash of ideas and tones, but here all of those ideas are encased in an oddball, hyperimagined occasionally dazzling science fiction film that is equally inspired by “Star Wars” and the long legacy of French comic books (particularly the work of Jean Giraud and Jean-Claude Mezieres). The movie’s plot, which involves a brutish cab driver (Bruce Willis) who teams up with a mystical entity (Milla Jovovich, Besson’s wife at the time) to stop a carcinogenic, planet-sized mass from consuming earth (with Oldman, once again, as Besson’s corporeal agent of evil), is at once his most traditionally mainstream, comically aloof and oddly forgettable. “The Fifth Element” is a movie that combines giant aliens that look like tottering robots, an intergalactic cruise ship, a sexually ambiguous radio DJ (played by Chris Tucker in an early tour de force performance), a blue-skinned opera singer and Oldman waxing philosophical about the nature of chaos while utilizing a gummy, cartoonish Southern accent. But maybe even more so than most Besson joints, the power of “The Fifth Element” lies in its outrageousness. Besson’s candy-colored world, like something out of the pages of “Heavy Metal” magazine remains one of the more unique visions of the future from the past twenty years, with sci-fi staples like flying cars and glittery skyscrapers rubbing shoulders with eccentric Bessonian flourishes like the McDonald’s employees being outfitted in uniforms designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and a subplot involving priests. Jovovich’s otherworldly Leeloo may be the ultimate Besson heroine: she is physical, sexual, emotional and yet naïve. In one of the movie’s most powerful scenes she downloads and views the extent of human cruelty and is crippled by the experience, but still compelled to save the planet. A strange mix of science and spirituality, cynicism and faith "The Fifth Element" may contain simply too many strands and colors and plotlines, but the movie remains a kicky visual feast, and is also, regrettably, one of the last times the director seemed to invite the viewer to have as much fun watching one of his films as he had making it.
“The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc” (1999)
After writing and producing the action comedy “Taxi” in 1998 (a film that would inspire two sequels and a limp American remake, thus kicking off the non-directorial "impresario" aspect of Besson's career in earnest), he returned with “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc,” which is pretty much what you would expect from Besson trying to mount a historical epic about the martyred young woman who claimed to receive godly visions and helped save France from marauding English invaders. Jovovich once again starred for Besson in the role of another preternaturally gifted young female, again assaying the fine line between spirituality and kicking ass, but here you feel that some of the more dramatic aspects of her character are a little beyond the actress’s grasp, and the film's literally sanctified subject matter meant that her performance was going to be much more rigorously scrutinized here than in "The Fifth Element." It turned out just so, with Jovovich's lead being cited as one of the film's weakest aspects -- something a biopic of St Joan is never really going to get over. Still, there’s plenty to marvel at, from the gory action sequences that recall “Army of Darkness” as much as “Braveheart,” to the way that Besson defines characters through action and not dialogue (more of a feat considering how many characters there are and how they are sometimes undistinguishable, visually, due to being covered in mud and blood), to the subdued, impressionistic final thirty minutes, which gets rid of the action to focus on the crisis of conscience as Joan awaits her execution. It’s here that Besson rolls the dice most fearlessly, introducing Dustin Hoffman (!) as the personification of Joan's self-doubt. The two engage in lengthy discussions as to the nature of her spiritual visitations, with Hoffman’s voice being digitally processed to devilish dimensions -- it’s the kind of thing that’s so fucking out-of-control that it ends up nearly working. In fact, it’s a quiet, eerie conclusion to a movie (with a running time of nearly three hours) that, up until this point, had been largely devoted to epic-scale battles, bloodshed and shouting. But while you can feel the internal war in Besson, between being both historically respectful and also entertaining in his singularly oversized way, this time the tonal shifts seem totally off and the film's self-seriousness scuppers a great deal of its entertainment value. Presumably it was the poor response to “The Messenger” (both critically and commercially) that saw Besson take an uncharacteristically long break from directing (it would be 6 years before "Angel-A") to concentrate on building his writer/producer brand.
If one were trying to pinpoint the moment when, directorially speaking, Luc Besson officially jumped the shark, “Angel-A” might be it. Tellingly, it followed the biggest gap in his directing career: the last picture he'd helmed before this was 1999’s “The Messenger” which was perhaps his first U.S. release that was met with both mixed reviews and poor box office. “Angel-A” would be justly received with even more disappointing notices. In the interim, Besson had at least hit his creative stride entrepreneurially speaking, writing, producing and then handing off to someone else to direct 11 different movies, including two films in his "Taxi" series, while also launching the "Transporter" and "District 13" franchises (that he would also write and produce). But the story that bafflingly tempted him back behind the camera centers on André (Jamel Debbouz), a gimpy two-time loser who owes money to the mob and finds that whatever meagre luck he’s ever possessed has run out. But the desperate man’s attempts to commit suicide are foiled when Angela (Rie Rasmussen) a mysterious, gorgeous, statuesque model, runs into his life. A weakling imp with no self-esteem, his idea is to run or contrive more schemes to make up the dough, but Angela is resolute in making him find confidence, inner strength and resolve. Not so surprisingly (or spoilery), since it’s never handled subtly, Angela, aka "Angel-A" is wait for it, an angel from God sent to look after the unfortunate. While the sepia-toned cinematography with its luscious high contrast is gorgeous, this is about the only thing to admire here. Tonally a mix of “It’s A Wonderful” life sentimentality, “Wings of Desire” fantasy (both done without any of those films' finesse), treacly romance and Besson’s trademark self-conscious camera moves, “Angel-A” is all superficial style and zero substance. Worse, the would-be Howard Hawks-ian ratatat back-and-forth between the two mismatched lovers is just annoying. A regular bit actor, Debbouze works fine in small parts (see “Amélie”), but isn’t really lead material. Likewise, Rassmussen, a fashion model turned actress is one-note (slyly sexy), until she reaches the emotional climax where she turns all shrill and histrionic. It seems he may have been pitching for charming fairy tale, a genre he would try again, but while Besson checks off all the ingredients necessary, here he concocts something cloying, forced and tremendously tedious.