Three years ago, I was sitting in an apartment on a cold December night watching the ending of Leon: The Professional. It was my first time seeing the film and I was simply blown away. The raw emotion that you felt at the end of that film eclipses many of the flaws that stymy it’s legacy. The person who shared the film with me happened to be a huge Luc Besson fan and had, at that point, been exposed to his entire oeuvre with great happiness. This enthusiasm made an impression on me and I immediately dove into his 1980’s films Subway and The Big Blue. Subway is an eighties hair thriller which takes place in the Paris subway system, following a thief’s attempt to escape a crime. The Big Blue, for those who haven’t seen the whimsical, visually delightful, overly-dramatized film about two deepsea divers and their relationship with the ocean, it is quite a treat. That was less than thirty years ago. Fast forward to today, where his latest film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is being raked over the coals by most accounts. It’s not a bad film in the way that Grown Ups is a bad film. But for the hype that Besson was attempting to drive up, it looks like we’re having a conversation we didn’t really want to have. This guy was great! He wrote some of the greater action movies of the last decade. He created the strange, but celebrated universe that is The Fifth Element. But now we need to have a moment. We need to sit down and ask ourselves for real: Where did Besson go wrong?
Besson is a screenwriter first, then a director. That’s where he really made the bulk of his work. For the purpose of this… ahem, biopsy, we’ll focus primarily on the directorial work, referencing key writing credits when necessary. So let’s begin with his 1985 film Subway, which is so 1985, it’s really appalling. I mean, look at their hair! Their outfits! But then again, everyone has to start somewhere – and Subway serves as a great cinematic experimental platform. The film follows a thief, who hides in the Paris subway and encounters troves of strange archetypal characters. It was really Besson’s way of playing around with location, character, and ‘the bizarre’. It’s fun, it’s fast – in many stylistic ways, it was the Baby Driver of the day (and I’m not the only one who thinks so). Our protagonist Fred is a likable criminal (something Besson would flirt with later in his career) who engages in a love affair with the wife of the mob bosses who chase him. Subway was strange, ephemeral, and visceral – all in a good way. It served as an excellent starting point for a rather odd career.
From there, Besson moved onto The Big Blue, a movie that was more or less The Prestige with divers. The film takes two excellent divers and turns them into friendly, fierce rivals. Inspired by his childhood exposure to the oceanic world (through his parents), Besson crafted the screenplay of this gem when he was just a kid. As far as competitiveness in sports films goes – this is beyond the norm (that’s one reason I make the Prestige reference). If you remember the bloody bitterness of the rivalry between the magicians in that film and you subtract a little bit of the obligatory Nolan intenseness, you are left with a fantastic, heartbreaking look at what happens when passion swells to the point of bursting. Led by Jean-Marc Barr and Jean Reno playing opposite one another, this film showed a director who’s constantly trying to improve his craft in a way that makes it seem he’s almost genetically compelled to do so – paralleling the divers who think about the ocean a little like R. Kelly thinks about his…ahem, cult.
After this, Besson decided to make his first foray into the action world with La Femme Nikita. And man, did that make people swoon! Some say it’s the best film Besson ever made, and it’s eighty-eight percent on Rotten Tomatoes might compel you to think that as well, considering it’s his career high on that site. But really, in the end, it’s where he got to exercise his action chops. Nikita follows it’s eponymous hero from murderous drug addict beginnings, to murderous non-drug addict endings. The story is about a young woman who kills a policeman and is sentenced to life in prison. Only, everything is totally rigged in France in 1990 and her death is faked so she can be presented with a new opportunity: become an assassin and eliminate any debt. Pretty enticing, huh? The other option was die. Besson sets up an enticing enough premise for a great spy thriller. Nikita wasn’t anything crazy new for the spy-film genre. Besson did learn that motivation behind criminality, creating empathy with these darker characters and therefore a moral debate in your audience made for good cinema. It also happened to be a visual treat. While not my personal favorite of his, it’s worth acknowledging that Nikita offered a new blueprint for the genre. Films would try and emulate it’s formula for years to come. Hell, it even got it’s own CW spinoff show. That’s the stuff of superhero lore nowadays.
Now we move onto the creme de la creme – Besson’s crown jewel and the high bar of his career in my opinion. Leon: The Professional. The funny thing is, Besson didn’t really have to put a lot of effort into this film, it was more of an afterthought that occurred during the filming of Nikita. Still, it became one of his most popular films and helped launch Natalie Portman’s career as well as helped Jean Reno branch out into the international market. Leon told the story of an assassin who lives down the hall from a little girl (Portman) whose family gets in some big trouble, leaving him with the generous burden of caring for her. Unfortunately, he makes quite the impression on her and she seeks to make her newfound father figure proud by following in his assassin footsteps. He doesn’t want her to deal with the arduous life he is currently living, but enjoys the time he gets to spend with her. Leon is an assassin with a heart of gold. With his character, Besson gave you a contract killer you can root for. Despite all of his flaws and vices, he does his best to correct the course of this young girl who has had a fairly rough life. Leon may not have been Besson’s most effective film financially, but it was his most affective film emotionally. The man was able to combine the action of James Cameron’s Terminator with the touching elements of James Cameron’s Avatar to create this very solid movie. And it doesn’t have to try too hard. There are really only three memorable characters: Leon, the girl, and a perfectly villainous mob-leader played by Gary Oldman. These two characters drive an extremely touching, powerful story about the benevolence of strangers, redemption, and Gary Oldman yelling a lot. Plus, you know it’s a good movie when a Sting song plays at the end!
The Fifth Element is certainly a wacky amalgamation of things that just happen to hit all the right notes. In fact, I think it’s exactly what helped Besson believe he could create his own universe with Valerian. Wrong. You see, what worked for The Fifth Element was it’s ability to blend the wacky with the witty. It made you feel like you were at a strange late-nineties, pop-interpretation of the future, yet it also invited broader conversation. It’s a simple story set against a complicated backdrop. Mila Jovovich plays Leeloo, a human weapon (technically the fifth piece) and the key to defeating a great evil. She happens to cross paths with a particularly lethal cab driver named Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), who then becomes her protector and primary catalyst in saving the world. It was a big imaginative film, crafted by a French guy who was merely trying to alleviate boredom. Most people, audiences and critics alike, would agree that he succeeded! The film went on to cement Besson as an international tour-de-force director who was capable of bringing entertainment no matter the genre. He also cemented Gary Oldman as a tried and true villain, something he seems to be shaking recently.
Besson ended the nineties with a Joan of Arc biopic called The Story of Joan of Arc. It was fine. It helped him by adding period piece to the list of genres he had proven himself capable and showed an apt restraint, considering the delicate nature of the source material. Other than that, this film marks the beginning of a noticeable drop-off in Besson’s career trajectory. Not a dramatic one, mind you, but a downward trend which will only escalate as he takes an incredible seven years until he makes his next major film (though he made a French rom-com called Angel-A in that interim). And that next film? Arthur and the Invisibles. Wow. I’m torn now, because on the one hand I want to outright say that Arthur and the Invisibles is the beginning of the end and the rest of Besson’s career doesn’t matter. Perhaps that’s a little misleading though, because Besson wrote the first Taken movie around this time and, love it or hate it, it was a decently fulfilling action film. His writing career was…fine. But, Arthur and the Invisibles? Really? For the sake of brevity, and more frankly, because this series doesn’t deserve a ton of words written about it, the Arthur trilogy (yes, unfortunately) showed a softer, sloppier side of Besson. It’s hard to say what happened. Joan of Arc was certainly a trend downward, but this was an outright nosedive. The film series follows a boy and his adventures with tiny creatures in his backyard. Each one is a bit of a trite, over-simplified story with the moral polarization of a kids TV movie. It’s like a Smurfs movie that isn’t aware of how smurfy it is. Thanks to him, we’re left with this poorly cartoonish, phoned-in series about mythical creatures in a backyard. Wow. Pick any film in the series and there’s not really a lot that you can say positively about them. They’re well written? Not by a long shot. Children should be insulted by these oversimplifications. It’s art direction is unique? I would say it’s like the art director for The Fifth Element – or maybe more precisely Valerian was tasked with adapting something accessible to audiences of PBS kids. At least the acting is decent? Jimmy Fallon, who I do appreciate as a talented talk show host, is one of the top-billed voices. Just allow that to sink in. The thing is, up until this point, Besson had a great streak – according to Rotten Tomatoes “fresh” qualifications. Something went horribly wrong here. It’s hard to place the Arthur series within Besson’s greater oeuvre because he did make films in between. The thing is, he chose to revisit Arthur two more times! And each time was a flat-out, blatant mistake! These films showed a distinct downward trend in his artistic ability as their sinking critical appeal paralleled his other films.
Evidently he learned something from Arthur, as his follow-up film The Lady, might be the most under-appreciated film of his career. The film follows Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese revolutionary, on her path towards achieving democracy in the country. It is a beautiful, simple biopic which gives great perspective on it’s unique source figure. It’s a great story which might not otherwise have been seen by many if it weren’t for Besson – though it is (rightfully seen as being) a bit dull. Still, it’s crazy that he followed Arthur up with The Lady. Mind-boggling. And that is the last high blip of his career. Hence the whole bumpy title. Following The Lady, he went with another article noun combo with The Family, a film about a mob family that is relocated to France where they attempt to live a normal life while still going about their mobster ways. It’s…entertaining. But suffers from being all to predictable all while trying not to be. He followed that entertainment up with Lucy, which everyone said was just Limitless with Scarlett Johansson. To some degree, they’re right. But it also feels all too much like La Femme Nikita with a deus ex machina filling in for the whole ‘forced killer’ bit. Instead of carrying the burden of being a killer, Lucy is given a gift. It’s a strange combination of things that have worked for Besson and, once again, it really doesn’t work.
Which leads us to today. Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets comes with enough of a grandiose title to set your expectations sky high. But more than likely, you didn’t end up seeing this movie, considering it opened fifth at the box office opening weekend (well behind Girls Trip at number two). And why should you have? It was a adaption that fell leagues short of it’s source material. I grant you that maybe that’s because the bar was set high. But you couldn’t tell that to Luc Besson, director and creator of The Fifth Element universe! He has a penchant for creating successful movie universes. The film isn’t the worst of Besson and it’s far from the best, but none of that really matters. What matters is that ever since the new millennium, Besson has been trying to get his groove back. And he’s not alone. In an age where we cherish visual delights, it’s hard to conjure something that will both scintillating and profound. Will he come back? Well, for the sake of the person who introduced me, I hope so. Obviously, if talent is there, it’s just a matter of what one does with it. But I wouldn’t worry about him, he’s the professional, after all.