The Best of Besson

Next to Steven Spielberg, Luc Besson may be the world’s most prolific filmmaker.

Look! He writes! He directs! He produces! On occasion, he’s even written music and served as second unit director, cinematographer and editor on his productions.

Look at the theaters now. The 43-year-old French action specialist has two movies coming out in some markets on the same week. He produced and is one of the screenwriters on Lockout, a futuristic actioner in which Guy Pearce plays Snow, a convict given a chance at freedom if he can save the president’s daughter from a prison in space. Call it an Interstellar Escape from New York.

Then there’s The Lady, a change-of-pace historical drama starring Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Su Kyi, an activist for Burma’s pro-democracy movement, who, along with British husband Michael Aris (David Thewlis) , encounters repression, her revolutionary father’s murder and human rights violations by a strict pro-military government to try to help her people.

Additionally, Besson has several other projects in various stages of production. There’s Taken II, a sequel to the international sleeper 2008 hit with Liam Neeson. There’s the cop thriller Brick Mansions with Paul Walker, which he scripted. Plus, there’s the animated big screen translation of the children’s book The Boy with the Cuckoo Clock Heart he’s producing.  There’s the low-budget Morocco-set suspenser Intersection. Let’s not forget The Transporter, the TV version of his film series, to be broadcast on Cinemax. Oh yeah, there’s the “Untitled Luc Besson/Angelina Jolie Project” with a 2013 release date.

This snapshot of Besson’s last few years gives you an idea of how varied his interests have become.  This master of highly stylized action films–often criticized for their violence and lack of depth—making a film about Burmese politics? Actually, Besson’s career has, in fact, been all over the place, delving into kids’ pics (Arthur and the Invisibles), historical biographies (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc with ex-wife Mila Jovovich), romantic fantasy (Angel-A), and westerns (Bandidas with Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz.) We haven’t mentioned the action films—sci-fi action, martial arts action, police action, crime action and western action.

It should come as no surprise that Besson had this to say about his steady output: “In my head, the fact that I have only two more films to make is pushing me. I say: ‘Oh my God, I’ve only got two more films so I have to say something that I really mean and I have to put it all in the last two films.’ The last two will be very good, I hope.”

It may come as some surprise, however, that Besson actually started out as an arthouse auteur. The son of two scuba diving instructors, Besson’s early life was dedicated to the water, and his dream was to become a marine biologist. That dream was curtailed by an injury that prohibited him from diving. His attentions shifted to TV and film, and his big screen feature debut came with 1982’s La Dernier Combat, based on his short film. This dialogue-free, black-and-white apocalyptic drama gained lot of attention for its uniqueness. It told a story of a war-devastated world where it rains fish, and the survivors fight against marauding gangs. One lonely man decides he needs some female companionship and sets out to find it by way of a self-built air machine. Straight out of the box, Besson offered future regular Jean Reno, a hulking figure born in Morocco of French and Spanish descent.

La Dernier Combat made Besson the hottest name on the arthouses (remember them?), and led to Subway (1985), his next film.  Christopher Lambert, late of the Tarzan reboot Greystoke, Legend of the Apes, played a blonde, spike-haired New Wave-y thief who discovers that the French metro leads to a wild, unexplored underground world. He joins a band, gets involved with the trophy wife (Isabelle Adjani) of the man whose goods he stole, and tries to elude her hubby’s henchmen.

With Subway, Besson proved he can embrace the sophisticated world of foreign films and

satisfy action fans to boot. He continued the trend with La Femme Nikita (1990), about a female assassin portrayed by another ex-wife, Anne Parillaud. Nikita ultimately spun off a remake (Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda) and two separate TV series adaptations in the west.  Leon ( aka The Professional) (1994), his first effort shot in English, offered Reno as a mob assassin, Gary Oldman as a corrupt DEA agent, and a 12-year-old Natalie Portman as a girl whose family has been killed and learns how to handle herself under the protective tutelage of Reno.

Despite the uncomfortable implications of the Reno-Portman relationship (or maybe because of it), the international critical and box-office success of the film–into which 25 minutes were eventually added to the truncated American version on DVD–led Besson to his biggest production yet, the science-fiction epic The Fifth Element (1997), which reportedly cost close to $100 million

Set in the 25th century, the film stars Bruce Willis as a taxi driver thrown into a plot to save the world by collecting five elements—the last one embodied by Jovovich—that can be used to defeat “the Great Evil,” a force that threatens the Earth’s future. While Oldman deliciously chews the scenery as the villain and Chris Tucker annoys as a motor-mouthed talk show host, the film offers cool special effects representing a futuristic New York City, and wild colors that make it look like an MAB paint store exploded. International box-office success for The Fifth Element in the $300 million range cemented Besson as a force to be reckoned with. A proposed sequel entitled Mr. Shadow (the original script, began by Besson when he was a teenager, ran 500 pages) never came to fruition.

Between some of his style-heavy action hits, Besson revisited his obsession with water. In 1988’s The Big Blue, two ocean divers (Reno, Jean-Marc Barr) compete against each other, first as children, then as adults in the world free-diving championships in Sicily. The Big Blue proved to be the most financially successful French film of the 1980s, even though it didn’t attain more than cult status in America. A few years later, in 1991, Besson’s documentary Atlantis was released. An episodic cinematic tone poem about underwater life set to the music of frequent Besson collaborator Eric Serra, the film stands out for its spectacular ocean cinematography of areas near the Galapagos Islands and Hawaii.

Even when Besson hasn’t worked behind the camera, he has left his imprint on many films and even film series. He was the mastermind (writer and/or producer) behind the 1998 French action comedy Taxi and its three sequels (the 2004 Jimmy Fallon/Queen Latifah 2004 American redo blew a tire); Jet Li’s actioners Kiss of the Dragon and Unleashed; two District 13 policers which feature parkour, a stunt style in which wires and special effects are NOT used; and Revolver, Guy Ritchie’s all-star crime saga with Jason Staham and Ray Liotta.

Over the course of his ever-energetic career, Luc Besson has been greeted with both boos and applause by critics. Some have called his work derivative, mindlessly violent and shallow. Others have praised him for energizing action pictures and bringing a stylish charge to the big screen.

Will Besson ever make his Saving Private Ryan, his The Color Purple or his Schindler’s List? Should we care if he just keeps giving us movies that shake, rattle and roll our senses? Maybe if Besson throws in one that provokes deeper thought or emotion every fifth cinematic element or so, we’ll be ok with him.