"Subway" begins as the world's greatest car stereo commercial and ends as the world's worst concert film. In between is a muzzy tale of doomed love; and when doom lowers its boom here, it feels awfully like relief.
Rarely has the excitement of an opening sequence been so quickly piddled away. A Mercedes full of gunslingers, all in black tie, rams into a Renault whose driver, Fred (Christopher Lambert), similarly tuxedoed, remains utterly oblivious -- he's busy looking for the right cassette. He finds it, rams it with a cackle into his Blaupunkt, and away we go, zipping down highways, clear off an overpass, and finally, down the stairs of the Paris Metro.
Director Luc Besson knows how to grab your lapels and shake the dizzies into you -- he films Fred from inside the car, his camera where the passenger's feet should be, cuts to a bumper's-eye view of the road, in fast motion, while the score (by Eric Serra) thumps funkily away. Between that and all the formal wear, you figure you're in for a wild French exercise in High Style.
For Besson also knows how to fill his high-gloss shell with low-gloss goo. Fred, it turns out, is a thief, a safecracker. On the lam, he enters the underground culture of the subway, where he joins the usual band of lovable misfits -- a roller-skating purse-snatcher, a flower-hawking sot, a bodybuilder named Big Bill and a bunch of aspiring musicians whom Fred assembles into a band. What promised to be "Diva" ends up as "The Dead End Kids," graduate division.
Pursuing the misfits (and Fred) are cops out of the Paris office of central casting -- the cagey, dyspeptic veteran and his officious, incompetent subordinate. A rich guy's goons chase Fred as well, mostly because Fred chases the rich guy's wife, Helena (Isabelle Adjani). Who'll get to Fred first? Cops? Goons? Helena? Stick around for the subway band's premiere concert (including, God help us, reaction shots of old folks as they snap their fingers and "get with it"), and you'll find out.
Outside of the opening, the movie's brightest spot is Lambert, who, with his smeared, lumpy putty-face, his vulture's eyes and wiggy giggle, his hair dyed and coiffed to look like the spot on the rug where the dog ruined it, delivers a remarkably fey performance. He makes Fred into a kind of pencil mark, precious because easily erased. And he virtually batters you with an addled smile that never ingratiates -- he dares to be irritating.
Adjani, on the other hand, makes a spectacular entrance, but that's the problem -- she's all entrance. Besson has her come in feet first from the top of the frame as she slowly descends the subway's stairs; you see a lot of a magnificent charcoal-gray taffeta gown before you know it's Adjani, so that when the formal beauty of her face finally appears, it detonates. But she doesn't bear the camera well. After 100 minutes, you realize that it wasn't Adjani that knocked you out -- it was the gown; she's overrated as a beauty. There's something in the way her mouth hangs open, in the opacity of her eyes, that bespeaks dull, if candlelit, evenings. And her range as an actress stretches from pouting to . . . well, pouting. When she's supposed to play cute and outrageous (rebelling at a stuffy dinner party), she's just persnickety.
Adjani wears thin on you, but that's not surprising -- in "Subway," everything wears thin on you, from the low camera angles to Serra's repetitive score to Big Bill's "cute" way of ripping open handcuffs. The theme song tells us, "We're so bored, we don't even care what we see." Bored, yes -- but not that bored.
Subway, opening today at the Key Theatre, is unrated, and contains some violence and profanity.