It sometimes seems like Luc Besson‘s name is attached to everything these days. Hardly a week goes by without seeing some new action flick- a Taken here, a Columbiana there- with Besson attached as a producer or writer, but as a director he’s far less prolific. He’s directed a slew of Arthur movies, based off a series of children’s books he also wrote himself, but besides that, the words “directed by Luc Besson” are scarcely seen.
So this weekend, which sees the release of the Besson-directed The Family, is a happy occasion (unless you’re Jack Giroux, our own critic who didn’t particularly care for the film). There’s no better time to take a fond look back at one of Besson’s most ambitious and, not coincidentally, most bizarre films: 1997’s The Fifth Element.
Unlike his most famous works of Leon: The Professional and Nikita, the zillions of films he attaches his name to each year, and of course The Family, The Fifth Element isn’t a crime film. It’s science fiction, and massive science fiction at that- a kooky space opera spanning multiple planets and multiple centuries, where a roguish cab driver (Bruce Willis) ferrets the chosen one (Milla Jovovich) from the clutches of a fast-talking, world-destroying entrepeneur (Gary Oldman). Think of it as Die Hard meets Star Wars with a slight dash of Run Lola Run.
No, These Aliens Don’t Have Any Ties to Kaiser Wilhelm II
Despite an abundance of Fifth Element clips on Youtube the film’s Indiana Jones-style opening is sorely absent. Globetrotting adventurers on an archaeological dig are ambushed not by Germans, but by Mondoshawans- great big golden turtle-shaped aliens that speak cryptically of ancient weapons and prophecy. The whole scene may not be available, but at least we can rest knowing the Mondoshawans’ allegiances lie firmly with the Allies.
Mugging a Mugger
There’s a whole lot of exposition going on right here. First, we’ve got everything we need to know about Willis’ Korben Dallas. He’s a blonde John McClane, a combat-ready, down-on-his-luck hardass with a chip on his shoulder and cat (because anyone with a cat has at least one emotion buried in there somewhere). But more importantly, this clip demonstrates one important fact: everyone in this movie who’s not Willis is completely insane. Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) squeals like a madman from a surprisingly small TV set. The woman in the ad cooing “for a perfect world…” seems equally nuts. Even the cat’s got crazy eyes. And apparently the 23rd century is when Mathieu Kassovitz, romantic lead of Amelie and director of the modern classic La Haine, finally snapped and started robbing people at gunpoint while wearing a silly hat and displaying all the symptoms of someone addicted to space crack. Good to know.
He may be the villain, but it’s hard not to love Oldman’s character, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (did I mention this film was French?) as he shows off the ZF1 with all the finely-honed showmanship of the world’s greatest snake oil salesmen. And the Mangalores- those alien fellas with the brutish faces- are an equally fine demonstration of why makeup and puppets and practical effects will always outshine CGI. Sixteen years later, and the lead Mangalore taking off his face is starting to look seriously dated. But his buddies in the background look as terrific as ever, clucking with Muppet-like approval at every wondrous feature of the ZF1.
Choking on a Cherry
Ian Holm does kind of have a point. If Zorg has machines to dispense fruit, water, compact disks, cacti, cleanly pressed shirts and a cute little elephant guy, and also to propel most of those objects into the air, he should really have some kind of built-in Heimlich machine somewhere in there. But of course he doesn’t, and so Holm (as the space priest Vito Cornelius) gets to mock his adversary, and all the sci-fi industrialization that won’t come to his aid when he chokes on the cherry he put in his glass of water for some reason. Is that really a drink? I have no idea. But this scene will always be dear to me; mostly for the elephant’s sunny reaction to seeing a man nearly choke to death.
It’s hard not to focus on Chris Tucker and his performance as some kind of squealing sex elf, but if you can manage to peel your eyes away, this whole sequence is a gold mine of facial expressions. The squealing girls, the horrified Bruce Willis, the dumbfounded waiter holding champagne, but especially the two guys flanking Tucker and gasping at his every utterance. The world would be a better place if Ruby Rhod and his posse regularly showed up in other action movies, with terrifyingly phallic hair and organic radio DJ sound effects.
Space Opera Beat ‘Em Up
Allow me to present The Fifth Element at its absolute weirdest. Bruce Willis is serenaded by an alien opera singer while Milla Jovovich uses her alien-infused chosen one skills to fight off a host of Mangalores. Watching this, it’s very, very apparent why The Fifth Element is one of Besson’s most polarizing films, and why most critics either fell in love with it or considered it absolute trash. Say what you will about the opera (personally, I think it’s so weird that it actually works) but there’s no denying the genius in that early shot of a cackling Mangalore. He’s having way too much fun.
Bruce Willis: Master Negotiator
Despite it’s bizarre exterior, The Fifth Element is still an action movie, and there’s no denying Besson’s action chops. Here, he’s coaxing a Die Hard-quality performance out of Bruce Willis (something later Die Hard films never managed to do); cool and calm and severely badass. That little nod on the line “that’s the leader” is Willis at his action-hero best.
What is your favorite scene from The Fifth Element?