Monday, August 29, 2011

COLOMBIANA - Is Revenge Sweet Or Sour?


- For Colombiana writer/producer Luc Besson, stories about revenge-seeking women kicking ass are old hat. Afterall, Besson helped popularize the genre in modern cinema with landmark films like La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional. But in recent years, we still haven't seen a ton of great roles for badass women in the movies. A long-in-development Wonder Woman movie remains in purgatory. Robert Rodriguez's Red Sonja remake seems to have lost steam. And with the exception of the occasional Angelina Jolie action-flick like Salt, few girl-power icons have truly emerged of late in film. That's why it's nice to see Zoe Saldana get top billing in COLOMBIANA. Saldana is legit - a good actress who also has the attitude, the moves, and the screen presence to work as a mainstream female action star. She deserves to star in a movie like this, and she really makes the most of the opportunity. Sure, Colombiana isn't going to win any awards for its somewhat generic, bare-bones script. It's not necessarilly even on the same level as some of the better Besson-produced films of the last few years, like District B13 or Taken. But, Colombiana is a really fun action flick that, I think, deserves an audience. Saldana shows that she has the chops to kick ass with the best of 'em, and seeing her in action is worth the price of admission.

Like I said, Colombiana's plot is extremely straightforward, and also very much out of the usual Besson playbook. The movie opens with an extended flashback to a time when Saldana's character, Cataleya (named for a Colombian flower), was just a wide-eyed ten year old living with her family in a crowded Colombian village. Young Cataleya sees her parents gunned down by Colombian ganglords after her father ends up double-crossed by his mentor - a ruthless criminal named Marco. Cataleya is left alive, which proves to be a huge mistake for Marco and his cohorts. The traumatized girl escapes to Miami, where she stays with her uncle, who happens to be a trained assassin. Her uncle slowly but surely teaches his niece how to be a killer. Now, we flashforward fifteen years. Cataleya - now portrayed by Saldana - is a hitwoman to be reckoned with, scaring even her uncle with her single-minded efficiency. Cataleya, now based in Chicago, works for him doing contract killings by day. But all the while, she has been biding her time to take vengeance on Marco and his organization. Now, she plans to lure them to her, in order to take them down.

The plot is basic, but it unfolds with some Euro-style flair thanks to director, and Besson protege, Olivier Megaton (quite a name, there). Megaton cut his teeth doing Transporter 3, and he seems to have gotten better since that film. He fills Colombiana with some truly breathtaking shots. Early scenes in Colmbia are particularly memorable. Later, just when things start to drag a little, Megaton throws in something particularly cool. A raid on a criminal's mansion is given an added degree of badassery thanks to the presence of a pool filled with deadly sharks. A prison-escape scene is rendered way-cooler-than-it-ought-to-be thanks to some super-slick techniques used by Cataleya to avoid detection. And the whole movie has that irony-free, Euro B-movie action tone that I always enjoy. There is humor, sure, but overall the movie takes its ass-kicking pretty darn seriously. It's fun. When young Cataleya asks her uncle if he'll show her how to kill people, he simply shrugs his shoulders and says "sure." Like I said, fun.

And again, Saldana rises to the occasion here. I kept thinking while watching this that, man, *she* could have been the perfect Catwoman. Saldana is slinky, cool, and deadly in this film - and she takes a backseat to no one. Criminal overlords, FBI agents, and prison guards are no match for her mix of cunning and badassery. I was also pretty impressed with the presence of the actress who plays the young version of Cataleya - Amandla Stenberg. She does a great job in those early scenes of playing the traumatized yet driven child. Saldana is mostly surrounded by a solid group of supporting players - the kind of grizzled badasses that typically populate these Besson action movies.

So where does Colombiana falter? Well, I think the main thing is that, as mentioned, the plot is so bare bones that there isn't much to sink our teeth into. We never learn much about the criminal organization that Cataleya is out to destroy, or what role her father played in the group (or why, exactly, he was portrayed). The movie only gives us the very broadest of strokes of story. This is also frustrating at the brief glimpses we get of Cataleya's personal life. There's a romance with a sort-of-random artist guy played by Michael Vartan, but the character feels a bit shoehorned into the plot. Overall, we just don't get enough sense of Cataleya's plans and her motivations. We know she's out for revenge - but why only now? What exactly has she been doing for the last fifteen years?

I also think that the action is cool looking, but that there aren't quite enough memorable, holy-$#%& moments that a movie like this needs to go from good to *great.* Don't get me wrong, there are several super-badass bits of awesomeness (did I mention the sharks?), but I think a couple more well-staged face-offs, and some better one-liners for Saldana to deliver, could have helped elevate this one to a must-see action flick.

Finally, I think the movie's tone is a little uneven. The movie works best when it's an unpretentious B-movie action flick. Once in a while though, the movie seems intent on pulling on our heartstrings in a way that doesn't quite work. Most jarring to me was the inclusion of Johnny Cash's iconic version of "Hurt" at a moment when it felt very out of place. I love the song, but you've got to earn a song like that, you know? And I don't think Colombiana ever quite attains the level of pathos / introspection it sometimes seems to wish it had.

Still, I think COLOMBIANA is way more fun and worthwhile than most critics have been giving it credit for. You may have read that the Cinemascore for this one has been very high, and I have to say, it's a crowd-pleaser. The audience I saw it with clapped at the end with enthusiasm. Like I said, it doesn't quite fire on all cylinders like I thought, say, Taken did, but it's very much in that same wheelhouse. It's just a tasty snack of an action movie - full of stylized ass-kicking, and anchored by the more-than-capable Saldana. It really is refreshing to see someone new step up to the plate and take the ball that the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Angelina Jolie have previously carried. Saldana is a certified badass in this one, and hey, watching a new action star come on the scene and own it - particularly a female action star - to me, that's something that's well worth checking out.

My Grade: B+

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