La Femme 'Colombiana'
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, Aug 26, 2011
After spending the past decade synthesizing a hyper-macho hybrid of the French policier, the Hong Kong kung fu movie and the British gangster actioncomedy, Luc Besson has decided to make one for the girls. The protagonist of "Colombiana" is a young woman who has strong feelings for her parents, a warm relationship with her boyfriend and a proclivity for sketching the delicate Colombian orchid for which she's named.
Of course, her parents are dead, her boyfriend is at great risk and she draws the flower in black lipstick on the bodies of her victims. Yes, Cataleya (like the heroine of the writer, producer and sometime director's "La Femme Nikita") is an assassin. And, yes (like the heroine of Besson's "The Professional"), she has vowed revenge on the drug dealers who killed her folks. But despite a list of hits that's topped 20, the killer - played by "Avatar's" Zoe Saldana - is a sensitive, sometimes weepy soul. And "Colombiana," at least by comparison with such Besson franchises as the "Transporter" series, has a gentle touch.
That's not immediately obvious. The opening credits offer a stutter-edit view of Bogota, intercut with documentary footage of drug-cartel infamies. That is followed by a sequence in which the 9-year-old's parents are killed by narco gang lord Don Luis (Beto Benites) and his enforcer, Marco (Jordi Molla). But the girl (Amandla Stenberg) escapes over rooftops and through sewers. It turns out she's skilled at parkour, the urban obstacle-course sport featured in many Besson productions.
The grimly self-possessed Cataleya makes an improbably brisk passage from Bogota to Chicago, where she easily finds her uncle, Emilio (Cliff Curtis). He's a brute but a tender one. He agrees to teach her how to be a professional killer, under one condition: She has to go to school. She probably attends a Catholic one, but despite frequent choruses of "Ave Maria," Cataleya could hardly be mistaken for another of Besson's action heroines, Joan of Arc.
Cut to 15 years later, and Cataleya has become a master assassin, which involves expert planning, some acting skills and an ability to improvise weapons. (The movie has plenty of guns but also inventive use of a spoon and a toothbrush.) Every homicide hit she commits is an advertisement for her campaign to annihilate Don Luis and Marco, who've been relocated by the CIA, for no apparent reason, to New Orleans. (For all its globalized touches, this is Besson's most American effort.)
The movie's first killing, of Cataleya's parents, happens off-camera, which sets the tone for this almost ladylike hit-woman flick. Besson and his collaborators - who include director Olivier Megaton and co-writer Robert Mark Kamen - devise some gruesome deaths for the assassin's targets (all of whom, it's established, are bad, bad people). These demises, however, are suggested rather than shown.
The final showdown with Don Luis and his henchmen is frantic and explosive, its quick cuts made even woozier by strobe effects. Yet the action sequences in the movie's middle section are cool and methodical, more "Mission: Impossible" than "Pulp Fiction."
Saldana was blue-skinned and literally coltish as "Avatar's" CGI-enhanced eco-champion. Here she's catlike and curt, with about as many lines as Besson's B-movie factory normally allots to someone like Jason Statham or Jet Li. That allows for a few modestly amusing twists on movie stereotypes. Cataleya is using her artist boyfriend (Michael Vartan) for sex, but in one scene, he insists she talk about her family and her feelings, much to her discomfort.
"Colombiana," though, doesn't quite qualify as a chick flick. The filmmakers were surely thinking of the guys when they arranged for Saldana to play many of her scenes in a cat suit, a bikini or lingerie. When her hideaway is raided by a police SWAT team, Cataleya must escape in her white cotton scanties. In one sense, however, she's always prepared: She's never taken by surprise while wearing undies that don't match.
Contains violence, sexual
situations and profanity.