Luc Besson has been missing in action when it comes to action films for over a decade now. Of course he has written and produced a number of aesthetically pleasing shoot’m ups over the past few years – Taken, Transporter, and Lockout — but his behind-the-camera work has involved three animated/live-action hybrids, a bio pic, and two fantasy-type films. And precisely zero of them ever caught fire with us stateside. With his new film, The Family, it looked like Besson was returning to his playful criminal roots. Unfortunately though, the finished product isn’t that film as it lacks the pace, laughs, and coolness the defined his earlier work. This isn’t attempting to be Leon as it instead takes aim towards broad comedy, but even those outlandish laughs fall apart because we just don’t give a damn about the titular family.
Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) was once a hotshot gangster back in New York, where he was feared, respected, and loved. That all changed when he ratted out his gangster pals, leading to a life in the witness protection program. His wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and their two children, Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo), all share violent tendencies that never quite suit where they’re relocated too. Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is in charge of protecting them, and after they can’t maintain anonymity in a certain country, Stansfield relocates them to Normandy, France.
Needless to say, they don’t fit in there, raising trouble right from the start of their new life there as the “Blake” family. The movie spends an extraneous deal of time on those fish-out-water jokes, and by the time we enter the second act, the movie is exhausting. The problem is it’s packed with digressions that have little to no baring on the overall narrative. Belle, for example, enters a relationship with a college student teaching at her High School, and it’s both nonessential and tone def.
Belle’s relationship is a example of Besson attempting to a portray a family with relatable issues – being bullied at school, first love, etc. – but it all rings false. The way Belle’s fling with the teacher is wrapped up is so bizarre it pushes you further away from that character. When Stansfield and Giovanni are attempting to protect these two kids, it’s tensionless because they’re both instantly stock and charmless.
So much of the film’s running time is spent with Belle and Warren. Putting aside the fact their storylines aren’t engaging, it’s also problematic because an audience wants to stick with De Niro and Jones. They’re the draw here, both as stars and characters. Even at the end when the action kicks in Besson stays with the kids, not De Niro, who gives a surprisingly game performance.
The Family is a pretty good movie when De Niro is onscreen. He’s charismatic and charming, in ways the rest of his family is not. Jones is more of the straight man of the two, and while it would’ve been welcomed to witness Jones ham it up in a movie all about hamming it up, the two playoff each other in fulfilling ways.
The film’s climax is proof Besson has not lost his acute action chops as a filmmaker. He knows how to steadily build tension, with music, atmosphere, pacing, and guns. The Family didn’t have to be an action movie, but if it was, it probably wouldn’t been better off, because that’s where the film thrives. All the gunplay is brief, but focused and clean.
But, it must be acknowledged, Besson makes a big cheat to reach that finale. The third act hinges on a gigantic series of coincidences. The way Besson shoots this montage of coincidences is self-aware, but nonetheless, it’s so eye-rollingly ridiculous. Besson is a pro when it comes to having an audience suspend disbelief and buy into the logic he’s working with, but he asks for simply too much in this instance.
“Too much” describes The Family in a nutshell. By all means it’s a broad comedy, but Besson goes so big that by the time he asks you to care for these characters in peril, it’s unfeasible. With the arguable exception of Giovanni, they’re cartoons, not characters. Besson knows how to write a helluva a cartoon – see Lockout for proof – but here he’s at odds with himself, failing to fuse that bombastic sensibility with genuine emotion.
The Upside: De Niro makes a few jokes hit their mark; Besson hasn’t lost his eye for action; an exceptionally good villain introduction; nice use of the Gorillaz’s “Clint Eastwood”
The Downside: But a terrible use of LCD Soundystem’s “New York, I Love You But You’re Bring Me Down”; tone def; a certain classic film reference; Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t get in on the action; a contender for worst subplot of the year
On The Side: Martin Scorsese executive-produced the film.