By Colin Moore
The summer action movie. We buy the tickets, apologize our way over bags and knees to an empty seat, and fill our cheeks with popcorn. But a filmgoer can only be expected to swallow so much. On that note, meet Colombiana, a movie more memorable for what it resembles than what it achieves. The film was produced and co-written (but not directed) by Luc Besson, the visionary writer/producer/director whose work includes ”The Big Blue”, ”Nikita”,”Taxi” and arguably his best to date, ”Léon/The Professional”. There’s a confident buzz in the brain when Besson’s name appears in the opening credits, normally a good sign. It doesn’t last long here, despite similarities to both Nikita and Léon.
As the film opens, we glide over the sun-bleached neighborhoods of Bogotá, Colombia. Young Cataleya lives here with her mother and father, a man on the verge of betraying Ruiz, a powerful criminal with ample resources. Opulent accommodations and armed guards suggest he may be a drug czar (or maybe we suggest it to ourselves). Seeing that his end is near, Cataleya’s father hands her the card of a certain C.I.A. contact, a hand-written address, and what he calls her “passport” – a computer chip with enough information to give Ruiz a king-sized migraine. On cue the gunfire begins. Cataleya’s parents are killed by Ruiz’s righthand man Marco (Knight and Day’s Jordi Molia), and his thugs. Naturally, this event is now seared into her tiny mind. Even after managing a miraculous escape and bargaining her way to America via the C.I.A., we know exactly what her future will hold. As it was for Léon’s 12-year-old orphan Mathilda, so it is for Cataleya. Vengeance. It’s just how it works.
Cataleya journeys to Chicago and is taken in by her uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis), a hitman who reluctantly agrees to fulfill her wish to be a killer, so long as she keeps up with her school work. She agrees. And so the training begins, but we don’t get to see it. Instead the calendar skips 15 years ahead, to one of a series of adult Cataleya’s (Avatar’s Zoe Saldana) “cleaning” missions. She’s beautiful and highly capable now, almost to the point of distraction, twisting and turning through ventilation systems and wall grates, swimming undetected by sharks, a master of guns and combat, always finding her mark. She’s untouchable, a sexy-flexi assassin more Gumby than Gumby. If only the story had more of her precision.
As an action movie, ”Colombiana” can be entertaining. Things go crash and boom and the camera seems to be in aesthetically pleasing positions throughout, even when scenes surpass the ridiculous. There’s one where Emilio tries to dissuade the young Cataleya from a life of crime by shooting a moving car full of holes. After it crashes into a pole, they finish their conversation then walk away scot free, end of scene. For Western audiences it seems, this blatant bending of reality in a “serious” movie creates confusion. Theatergoers look to each other for some kind of confirmation. They’re unsure how to react. Beware, ”Colombiana” contains more of these scenes than you might care for.
Dramatically however, the film is on wobbly legs. Besson and co-scribe Robert Mark Kamen (”The Karate Kid”) have cast too many lines in too many ponds, giving their heroine too much to do. Ruiz & Marco, Uncle Emilio, his elderly mother, her boyfriend Danny, the men she’s assigned to kill, and the F.B.I. – these are the players that divide her time as she plans her revenge. Unfortunately, they all eat up valuable screen time and the relationships with the greatest potential for emotional payoff (Emilio’s and Danny’s) are dulled down because of it. In many ways, Léon is the ideal template. It keeps major characters to a minimum and focuses almost exclusively on nurturing the relationship between the solitary hitman and the girl he agrees to train. But it also gives its own villain enough time to establish himself as a worthy opponent, something Colombiana does not. Vengeance is Beautiful? Maybe, but it’s not enough.