Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

2017 #160
Luc Besson | 137 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | France, China, Belgium, Germany, UAE, USA, UK & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Luc Besson returns to the sci-fi genre that he so memorably visited 20 years ago in The Fifth Element for another colourful, crazy, adventure romp. Based on the French comic book series Valerian et Laureline, it sees special agents Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) on a mission to protect Alpha, the titular city, from forces that threaten to destroy it.

Valerian got a pasting from critics and was a flop at the US box office, a particular problem when it’s apparently the most expensive independent movie ever made. Fortunately for it, it did alright internationally, to the point where home video sales could still secure a sequel (Besson has already written a second and has moved on to developing a third!) While it’s far from a perfect movie, it deserves to find an audience. It’s probably a bit too barmy — a bit too European, even — for mainstream US tastes, but there’s a lot to like here for those who are so inclined.

The main selling point is the imagery. Simply put, it’s incredible. There’s so much going on, all the time. There’s background detail galore. It whizzes through worlds that could be the entire setting for some other story. There are dozens, probably hundreds, of alien species thrown around. It’s so casually inventive, as if it’s got imagination to spare. And it’s mostly vibrantly colourful too, a real comic book of a movie in the traditional sense. All that depth and detail looks particularly amazing in 3D, it must be said, especially during the action sequences that whoosh though intricate, layered environments at breakneck speed.

Valerian, without Laureline

This visual exuberance sometimes comes at the expense of the plot. The main storyline is pretty straightforward — for example, there’s a third-act twist that’s obvious from the moment the character it concerns first appears on screen — but it keeps getting distracted by total asides, as Besson meanders off course to showcase some other species or environment or set piece he and his army of designers have cooked up. If that kind of shaggy storytelling annoys you then Valerian is set to get up your nose, but if you go along for the ride then Besson’s showing off can be delightful.

Some of the other screenwriting details suffer even more, however. It almost engages in some interesting themes about colonialism and that kind of stuff, but instead more nods its head in their direction than actually says anything about them. More overtly, a lot of the dialogue is atrocious. In fact, it’s so bad that you begin to wonder if it’s deliberately ultra-mannered and you’ve just missed some kind of joke. It doesn’t help that DeHaan feels at least somewhat miscast as the cocky heroic lead. Or possibly that’s the point — that Valerian isn’t as irresistibly attractive and amazingly competent as he thinks he is. Model-turned-actress Delevingne, on the other hand, is surprisingly good.

You’ll notice that Valerian and Laureline are (a) co-leads, and (b) both in the name of the original books, and yet the female half of the duo has been ditched from the film’s title. Unfortunately, that does indicate the film’s sometimes-dated attitude towards gender politics. On the bright side, Delevingne manages to imbue Laureline with a feistiness that allows her to mostly hold her own against the men, and — despite the old-fashioned shape of a romantic subplot — Besson’s screenplay lets her be a capable agent in her own right as well. Still, Laureline vs. the Space Patriarchy would not be a wholly unapt alternative title for the film.

Laureline vs the Space Patriarchy

These less-good aspects of Valerian glare out at one rather, and make me want to declare that much of it is kind of rubbish, really… and yet I rather enjoyed the whole shebang. Perhaps it just takes a rewatch or two to settle into the film’s own particular rhythm? Even if that’s not the case, I’d still rather have the messy ambition of a Valerian than another dozen run-of-the-mill Hollywood CGI extravaganzas. Fingers crossed for those sequels.

4 out of 5

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is released on disc in the UK today.

It placed 17th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

The Transporter (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #94

Rules are made to be broken.

Country: France & USA
Language: English, French & Mandarin
Runtime: 92 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 11th October 2002 (USA)
UK Release: 17th January 2003
First Seen: DVD, c.2003

Stars
Jason Statham (Snatch., Crank)
Shu Qi (The Storm Riders, The Assassin)
Matt Schulze (Blade II, Fast Five)
François Berléand (Au Revoir Les Enfants, The Chorus)

Directors
Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, Now You See Me)
Corey Yuen (The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk, DOA: Dead or Alive)

Screenwriters
Luc Besson (Léon, Lucy)
Robert Mark Kamen (The Karate Kid, Taken)

The Story
Frank Martin is “The Transporter”, a driver for hire who moves people and goods, no questions asked. He never looks inside the package… until, on one job, the package moves. Finding a young woman gagged inside, Frank winds up embroiled in her rescue from some very bad men.

Our Hero
Frank Martin, expert driver (he’s the titular transporter after all) and martial artist, as handy with his fists as he is with a steering wheel. Lives by a simple set of rules… which he breaks, because it’s a movie and it needs a plot.

Our Villain
Darren “Wall Street” Bettencourt, an American gangster who initially hires Frank, then tries to kill him — even though he did a good job! And you thought people who left unnecessarily low feedback on eBay were a pain.

Best Supporting Character
Inspector Tarconi, the local police detective who’s on to Frank but can’t prove anything. Comes through in the end, becoming Frank’s ally in the sequels.

Memorable Quote
“Rule #1: never change the deal.” — Frank

Memorable Scene
Oil everywhere + people wanting to fight = ingeniously slippery combat. Seriously, that one scene is the main reason the entire film is here.

Technical Wizardry
Jason Statham did most of his own stunts, fighting, and driving. That included learning martial arts to supplement his kickboxing abilities and, for one sequence, actually hanging off the bottom of a truck with just a wire up his leg for safety.

Letting the Side Down
The trailer showed Frank deflecting a missile with a tea tray. A missile. With a tea tray. It was removed from the final cut because Statham didn’t think audiences would believe it, but c’mon, this is an action movie, and that’s silly-awesome. I mean, deflecting a missile… with a tea tray!

Making of
The oil in the famous fight scene is actually molasses syrup. Apparently it was very sticky, which is kind of the opposite to its purpose in the film, but that’s movie magic for you.

Next time…
Two direct sequels of typically decreasing quality; a spin-off TV series that ran for two seasons; and a reboot movie last year, which went down badly but I quite enjoyed (for what it was). Plus: a mini-empire of similarly-styled Euro-produced English-language action movies masterminded by Luc Besson, the most famous of which is the Taken series.

What the Critics Said
“Post-Ghosts Of Mars, if anyone had suggested that big, bald, brusque Jase could hold his own as an action hero, they’d have been laughed out of town. And while he doesn’t exactly deliver an acting masterclass (his ‘American’ accent doesn’t quite stand up to the rigours of actually opening his mouth and talking), this is all about kicking ass and taking names. […] The spirit of Hong Kong action movies hangs heavily over The Transporter, most notably in the CG-free fight scenes which, thanks to former fight choreographer Yuen, have enough zing and originality to satisfy even Hong Kong aficionados. […] simultaneously the best (the fight scenes) and worst (everything else) action movie of the year. Destined for drunken Friday night rental heaven.” — William Thomas, Empire

Score: 54%

What the Public Say
The Transporter doesn’t hold up as well on a rewatch as I would have hoped. It’s a bit stop-start and the ending didn’t feel as BIG as it should have been. At the same time, it has a couple of outstanding scenes and no review of this film is complete without a reference to and expression of WTF?! about the now infamous oil-slick fight scene. Truly a marvel of film thinking, then perfectly executed. […] The Transporter is exactly the kind of daft film that Hollywood became ashamed of making — and it really shouldn’t have.” — Steve G @ Letterboxd

Verdict

The Transporter is neither big nor clever. In terms of the former, it’s a relatively small-scale, low-key action movie, not some Hollywood extravaganza; and in terms of the latter, it’s a relatively small-scale, low-key action movie, so of course it’s not been pumped full of brains. Instead it’s pumped full of adrenaline, with a brisk running time that serves up impressively choreographed action at a solid rate, with an amenably light tone in between the combat. It also made an action star of Jason “The Stath” Statham, which I’m sure some people would thank it for. It certainly brought down the average age of participants in The Expendables.

#95 is… indestructible.

Quadruple Drabble: Mediocre films by directors who should do better

I have a massive backlog of reviews, and I keep watching new stuff, so there literally aren’t enough days in the year to clear it. In aid of that, here’s three connected quickies — according to wordcounter.net, it should take you less than 90 seconds to read all of them.

The theme, as the title suggests, is directors we have good reason to expect much of, but in this particular instance have let us down. They are Luc Besson, Michael Mann, and (to a lesser extent) Neill Blomkamp.

Here is what they made:

Lucy
Blackhat
Chappie

(Why ‘quadruple’? This post has 100 words too!)

Lucy (2014)

2016 #44
Luc Besson | 86 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France & USA / English, French & Korean* | 15 / R

LucyAfter years producing movies in the Taken stable, Besson directs one himself. Unfortunately it’s a poor effort — not a bad movie, exactly, but a deeply silly one.

Forced to be a drugs mule, Scarlett Johansson accidentally ingests the product and unlocks her brain’s unused potential — yes, that long-debunked chestnut. Such daftness passes muster in, say, superhero origins, where no one’s expecting plausiblility, but Lucy seems to want to genuinely consider scientific ideas… between mediocre action sequences, anyway, which feel like they’re pulling punches to hit 12A/PG-13, even though it’s 15/R.

Less than an hour-and-a-half long, it still feels a slog.

2 out of 5

* IMDb also lists Spanish and Chinese, but I swear they’re only spoken very briefly. If we’re being that picky, Italian’s in there too, I think. ^

Léon (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #51

He moves without sound.
Kills without emotion.
Disappears without trace.

Also Known As: The Professional (USA) *shudder*

Country: France
Language: English
Runtime: 110 minutes | 132 minutes (version intégrale)
BBFC: 18 | 15 (version intégrale)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 14th September 1994 (France)
US Release: 18th November 1994
UK Release: 3rd February 1995
First Seen: VHS, c.1999

Stars
Jean Reno (Les visiteurs, Ronin)
Natalie Portman (Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Black Swan)
Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Director
Luc Besson (Nikita, The Fifth Element)

Screenwriter
Luc Besson (The Transporter, Taken)

The Story
When her family are murdered by a corrupt police officer, 12-year-old Mathilda runs to hide with her quiet, reclusive neighbour, Léon. Turns out he’s a hitman, and she begins to train with him so she can exact her revenge…

Our Heroes
As the title character, Jean Reno’s child-like hired killer is likeable, sympathetic, and quite sweet — traits one wouldn’t typically associate with his profession. As his young ward, Mathilda, Natalie Portman is compelling, playing a hardened, emotionally bruised kid in desperate need of support and guidance, more so than she needs vengeance.

Our Villain
Gary Oldman brings pure entertainment value to the film in one of his most iconic performances: Stansfield, the crazy copper with a penchant for both drugs and quotable dialogue.

Best Supporting Character
There’s not much room for anyone else to stand out around the three lead performances, but Danny Aiello comes closest as Léon’s kindly mafioso handler, Tony.

Memorable Quote
Stansfield: “Bring me everyone.”
Benny: “What do you mean ‘everyone’?”
Stansfield: “EV-RY-ONE.

Memorable Scene
As Mathilda returns home from buying groceries, she sees the door to her family’s apartment open and a man standing suspiciously outside. As she nears, she catches a glimpse inside — her father sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood. She keeps walking, pretending not to have seen, and approaches Léon’s door — where he’s been watching through his peephole. Trying to hold back tears, she rings his bell. Behind the door, Léon fidgets, not answering — he doesn’t want to get involved. She pleads under her breath. She rings again. The man at her door watches, suspicious. She rings again, desperate. Léon is torn… OK, you know all along what he’s going to do, but Besson’s direction and the performances from Portman and Reno ring every second of tension out of the sequence.

Letting the Side Down
Some people find the relationship between Léon and Mathilda problematic, and that gets in the way of their enjoyment of the movie. I’ve never seen it that way. Mathilda tries to inappropriately push herself on Léon, but he never takes her up on it. He’s a child himself in many ways and that side of life doesn’t seem to engage him at all, never mind in an unacceptable fashion.

Making of
The film’s second shot (still in the credits) is a tracking shot that travels along a New York road without stopping. It was only possible after studying the pattern of the traffic lights along the route to make sure the camera truck didn’t encounter any red lights.

Previously on…
The film was inspired by Jean Reno’s role in Besson’s previous film, Nikita (aka La Femme Nikita), in which he turns up in the third act as “Victor the Cleaner”, dressed in an outfit similar to Léon’s, to deal with Nikita’s botched mission.

Next time…
Besson wrote a script for a sequel focusing on a grown-up Mathilda. While they waited for Portman to age into the role, Besson left Gaumont to start his own studio, EuropaCorp. Unhappy at his departure, Gaumont have apparently refused to let him have the necessary rights. According to Olivier Megaton (the director of Besson projects like Transporter 3 and both Taken sequels) it will now likely never happen. Reportedly the script was recycled into Colombiana, which I am now 100% more interested in seeing.

Awards
7 César nominations (Film, Actor (Jean Reno), Director, Music, Cinematography, Editing, Sound)

What the Critics Said
“For Luc Besson, [Léon] is a poetic brute, a man without humanity who has lived so close to darkness for so long that he has lost all connection to the light. The universe around him, too, is a symbolic construction, an interweaving of opera, film noir and existentialism, where the larger-than-life forces of innocence and corruption explode in blood and violence. […] Reno plays it minimally; Oldman splatters his performance all over the screen. Oldman is the least inhibited actor of his generation, and as this deranged detective, he keeps absolutely nothing in reserve. When the camera gets close to him, you feel as if you want to back away. […] Stansfield’s signature is his passion for music. He thinks of everything, even his blood orgies, in terms of rhythm and color. You want Beethoven? he asks, picking up a shotgun. I’ll play you some Beethoven. Fortunately, Besson structures his film in much the same way. Not only does music play an important role in giving texture to his material, his scenes — especially the violent ones — are presented as arias, chamber pieces, symphonies.” — Hal Hinson, The Washington Post

Worst Spurious Connection in a Supposedly Professional Review
“A favorite of IMDb fanboys (who have absurdly — but predictably — ranked it the 27th best movie of all time!) and reportedly of pedophiles as well” — Matt Brunson, Creative Loafing (You’re right about one thing, though, Matt: 27th is ridiculous — Léon is top ten material.)

Counterpoint to Mr Brunson
“[It] would go on to become one of his most highly-regarded films among audiences. Sadly it was not thought of nearly as well by critics, merely receiving somewhat average reviews, giving us another sad oversight [and] proving that there are those times where the general audience can have more perception into a film than those that analyze them for a living.” — Jeff Beck, examiner.com

Score: 71%

What the Public Say
“In spite of ranking on the top ten lists of many, many movie fans since its release, my love for [Léon] was not immediate. As a matter of fact I pretty much disliked it on the first and second outings because I couldn’t quite grasp what Luc Besson was going for with this film. It’s not an action movie, it’s more of a love story set to the tone of bloodshed and corruption, a subtle poetic masterpiece that relies on characterization and artistic strokes of pure raw emotion than some shoot em up gangster flick. […] I’ve come to truly appreciate what a pure piece of brilliant filmmaking this is and the loose allusions this has toward another Besson masterpiece La Femme Nikita. Everything about this film from the performances right down to the set pieces are like pieces of moving art, and Besson is the artist with the brush. […] Besson’s incomparable film is almost impossible to beat and there’s yet to be a director who could match his magnum opus. Even after almost twenty years, [Léon] stands as the superlative masterpiece of action filmmaking and has yet to be matched or toppled by any director in the business.” — Felix Vasquez, Cinema Crazed

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed the extended “version intégrale” cut of the film in 2008, asserting that “I prefer this version. Not because there’s anything wrong with the original — far from it — but because this one has more. […] I love the film and the characters, I could happily take more of them, and I very much enjoyed all of the added material. […] Léon (in either cut) is unquestionably essential.”

Verdict

Léon delivers the kind of tense sequences of action you’d imagine of a dramatic action-thriller (i.e. not highly-choreographed punch-ups every five minutes, but the action scenes that do appear are suspenseful), but the film’s real joy lies in its characters, who are expertly performed and wonderful to spend time with (in a movie context — in real life, I wouldn’t be so sure…) As a whole, Besson brews the grittily realistic with something far more fantastical to create a film that is, perhaps, a little too unique for some to get a handle on (I’m thinking of the handful of low-rated critics reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, which fly in the face of the consensus opinion). For the majority, however, Léon is a gripping, characterful, rewatchable masterpiece.

#52 just can’t wait… to be king.

Léon: Version Intégrale (1994/1996)

2008 #42
Luc Besson | 127 mins | DVD | 15*

Léon: Version IntégraleI first saw Léon about 10 years ago, back when video was still an acceptable way of watching things. A friend leant it to me, insisting it was a film I absolutely had to see, and he wasn’t wrong. It’s remained one of my favourite films ever since, though typically I haven’t watched it more than once or twice in the intervening decade. (It also fostered a love for Sting’s closing song, Shape of My Heart, which is criminally missing from a Greatest Hits CD my dad owned (even though his dire song from Demolition Man is on there), and in moderately recent years was indifferently reused by both Sugababes and Craig David.)

I became aware of this extended cut a few years ago, a little while before it was released on R1 DVD. Having held out for a UK R2 release for about half a decade now, I gave in and bought the (apparently superior, and also in a Steelbook, which always has a way of persuading me) German R2. It’s labelled as a “Director’s Cut” but, as Besson states in the relatively lengthy booklet (translated with the aid of [the now defunct] Babel Fish), “the second version is neither better nor worse than the original” — it’s not a preferred cut, just a different, extended one.

But personally, I prefer this version. Not because there’s anything wrong with the original — far from it — but because this one has more. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing of course, but I don’t think that’s happened here. The additions build on the characters and relationships, primarily between the two leads, and also add extra doses of humour and action. Besson wasn’t necessarily wrong to remove these things from his original cut — the extent of Léon and Mathilda’s relationship is especially controversial for some, and the extended scenes of Léon training Mathilda as a Cleaner are arguably extraneous — but they all add to the experience. Wisely, he doesn’t seem to have touched what was already there. Everything that was great about the original — from the astounding performances of Jean Reno, Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman, to the thrilling action sequences, and plenty else in between — remains intact. They’ve not been buggered about with, just expanded around.

Ultimately, the reason I prefer this version is quite simple: I love the film and the characters, I could happily take more of them, and I very much enjoyed all of the added material. I can understand objections to the insinuations about Léon and Mathilda’s relationship, but I didn’t find it any creepier here than it was before (besides which, any paedophilic notions come from her and he quashes them). The quality of the performances in the new scenes, plus other solid additions, make all the new bits worthwhile.

The version intégrale isn’t too much of a good thing, then, just more of a great thing. To my mind, Léon (in either cut) is unquestionably essential.

5 out of 5

* The original cut of Léon was last classified in 1996 and given an 18. The longer version was classified in 2009 and received a 15. That must be a pretty rare case of a longer version (technically) having a lower certificate. ^