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Bruce Willis, in His Element

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 9, 1997

Weíre turbo-jetting into Hollywoodís goofyseason, when the spectacular and the stupid (usually within the same movie) will joust for our impulsive favors. But if "The Fifth Element" marks any kind of precedent for the summer, there are grounds for some encouragement. Thereís so much high-voltage fun running throughout this comic sci-fantasy -- engineered gleefully by director Luc Besson -- youíre hard-pressed to be unaffected.

Bruce Willis can do no wrong these days. Empowered by his success with the "Die Hard" pictures and "Pulp Fiction," heís our runaway marquee king. As Korben Dallas, a 23rd-century cabbie from the South Bronx, he assumes the usual Willis characteristics: Heís getting over a woman who burned him, heís close to the wire (heís only got five more points left on his license) and he still canít find a razor. Hey, why tamper with a good thing?

The world, as usual, has gone to seed, with a big-brotherly government, mercenary rogues, hostile dog-faced aliens known as Mangalores and a punkish crime lord called Zorg (Gary Oldman). These days, driving is a frenetic, airborne activity. The Manhattan skyline is clogged with vehicles whizzing around in collision-imminent patterns.

Something far more ominous than crime and congestion is threatening the planet, however. In a flashback to the year 1914, small-headed aliens called the Mondoshawan (good extra-terrestrials for a change!) descend to Egypt to tell their human contact -- a sort of high priest -- that evil is at hand.

See, every 5,000 years, a doorway to a parallel dimension opens, and evil slides right in. (Donít you hate it when that happens?) The only way to prevent the Earthís demise is to line up four sacred stones that represent the elements: fire, earth, air and water. Actually, this cosmic mojo configuration requires a fifth element, which represents God, light, life-energy and perfection. But more about that later.

Back in the present (the year 2259), itís time for an invasion of evil. An enormous fireball of badness is speeding toward the Earth threatening to consume and destroy the planet. Another problem: The good aliens have been zapped trying to stop it. All thatís left is a few cells of a former alien. Government scientists regenerate the remains until they re-create. . .a beautiful, powerful space babe called Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). Turns out, sheís the fifth element, the supreme being. Panicked by these uniformed strangers, the newly constituted Leeloo leaps from a ledge and THUD! straight into Korbenís air-cab. Now weíve got a story and, it doesnít take too much to guess, a romance. (Although heís clearly smitten, Korben only gives her a "9" rating. Some guys are never satisfied.) Also figuring in this are Cornelius (Ian Holm), a priest who knows about the five elements, Zorg whoís working for pure evil (hmmm, what tax form does he need for that?), and those plug-ugly Mangalores, whose deal with Zorg turns sour.

The 127-minute movie (which Besson wrote with Robert Mark Kamen) runs into the usual Hollywood overdrive. When itís finally over, it feels like Five Elements too many. It doesnít stand up to scrutiny either. Jovovichís Leeloo is physically impressive, and she can kick butt like Pris in "Blade Runner," but we donít have the slightest clue about her apparent perfection. What is it like to be a supreme being? Chris Tucker plays a garishly clad DJ called Ruby Rhod like a mincing, amphetamine-injected combination of Dennis Rodman and Pee-wee Herman. His annoying, in-your-face overacting (even in an over-the-top production like this) almost single-handedly undoes the movie.

But in oversized, complicated epics such as "The Fifth Element," youíve got to expect a little rough with the smooth. Despite these shortcomings, Bessonís vision remains amusing, nonpretentious and occasionally sublime. And itís always great to watch. The French director of "Subway," "The Big Blue," "La Femme Nikita" and "The Professional" employed a great production team, including many regulars from his former films: graphic artists Jean Giraud (aākāa Moebius) and Jean-Claude Mezieres, famous for their comic-book depictions of the future; and Jean-Paul Gaultier, who created some wonderfully outlandish costumes. From Jovovichís minimal, form-fitting underwear to the creation of an alien, cephalopod-like opera singer called the Diva, this movie ensures that your eyes are always thrilled, tickled or engaged. And thatís pretty good for a pre-summer movie experience.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT (PG-13) ó Contains nudity, sexual situations, space-age violence and Chris Tucker.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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