The Luc Besson action train rolls on with Colombiana; the story of a ruthless woman on the hunt for her parent’s murderers. It’s standard fare from the writer-director turned producer who has, in the last decade or so, become something of a film production power house. With entries such as the Transporter trilogy, From Paris with Love and Taken, Besson and his team are now synonymous with the stripped down, back to basics, low budget action movie. So it probably shouldn’t surprise you to find out that while competently made, Colombiana is at its strongest when the gunfire erupts, and at its weakest whenever the magazines run dry.
The film opens in Bolivia, home to ruthless drug lord Don Luis. He’s introduced engaging with another man in what appears to be a friendly conversation. However, as soon as the outsider leaves, in classic villainous tones, Luis snarls to his henchmen “Kill ‘im”. Which his rent-a-thug army proceeds to do: they follow the man to his home, and then execute everyone they find there. Well, almost everyone. They hadn’t factored in the man’s 10 year old daughter Cataleya, who has apparently been training in Parkour all her life. Showing skills that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bourne film, the young girl easily evades her would-be killers and promptly disappears into the sprawling city. Through a sequence of events far too stupid to document, she manages to reach the US and the city of Chicago. Here she links up with a friend of her father: Emilio Restrepo, who promises to take care of the young girl, enrolling her in a local school. Not surprisingly, Cataleya doesn’t really take to formal education, especially as the school she’s going to attend doesn’t provide a course in what she’s interested in learning – how to become an assassin in order to avenge her parents murder.
The opening lasts a good twenty minutes, but at the same time it doesn’t drag and is certainly fun, if utterly unbelievable. There’s a fair amount of enjoyment to seeing the young girl outwit both the drug lord’s militia and the authorities even if generous amounts of shaky cam and lighting fast cuts are required to hide the fact that Amanda Stenberg (the actress playing 10 year old Cataleya) may not really be the world’s youngest exponent of parkour. Once all of this is out of the way, the film fast forwards 15-ish years, and Stenberg is replaced by our leading lady Zoe Saldana. It’s always a risk making a large time jump in a film – do you replace all your actors with older versions, or try to pass off the already-introduced actors as much older using expensive make-up and prosthetics or hugely expensive CGI aging effects (AKA ‘Tronface’ here at Jaded Eye)? Well, in the case of Colombiana, you do neither. One actor gets a bit of grey hair dye for his temples, and the rest look identical to how they did over a decade and a half ago. Hmm, perhaps there’s some amazing age-defying benefit to snorting loads of Bolivian marching powder that I’m simply not aware of.
Sadly, “Zoe Cataleya” does not start clinical trials on this wonder substance, nor does she contact Doctor Who to check if there’s been a glitch in the space time wibbly-wobbly thing. Instead, she starts knocking off Don Luis’s crew in the sort of extravagant plots that Agent 47 used to execute in the Hitman games. The old “getting arrested on the same night as the FBI use one of the cells to keep a mobster overnight” ploy was covered in the trailer, but there are equally complex and ridiculously fortuitous plans executed later on in the film that I won’t ruin here. Sadly, the film doesn’t just consist of these over the top Rube-Goldberg-esque sequences, as large parts of the film cover Cataleya’s attempts to live a normal life, and it’s these that drag the film to a grinding halt. By normal life, I mean engage in PG rated sex with a random artist then disappearing before he wakes each morning. Zoe hasn’t explained her assassin background to the artist (actually known as Danny) so their attempts at conversation drag into awkward silences. All these sequences (both PG sex and PG talking) are incredibly dull and do nothing to expand the character of Cataleya. They feel like they’re present just to pad the run time (a lean 90 mins or so) until the shooting resumes.
As the lead, Zoe Saldana is convincing as a trained killer and unconvincing as a human being. Part of that is a script problem, part an actor problem, but as a whole, any scene were Zoe is not holding a gun is disappointing and dull. Fortunately, once the fireworks kick off, Saldana acquits herself very well, always looking convincing whether carrying a Glock or a gigantic sniper rifle – a feat many action leads, both female and male, have been known to struggle with. The rest of the cast are nothing spectacular – head goon Jordi Mollà gets a standout brawl with Zoe but is otherwise a non-entity, and the love interest Danny played by Michael Vartan is as vapid as they come. Cliff Curtis has a couple of nice moments as Cataleya’s foster father Restrepo but they don’t amount to much. One of the better sketched characters is Lennie James’ FBI agent Ross who spends the majority of the film hunting for Cataleya before grudgingly teaming up with her*. And it’s nice to see “Dead Like Me” alumnus Callum Blue still parlaying his cheeky grin into an acting career, even if it’s only a small role.
Director Olivier Megaton (The greatest director name in the world) handles all the action well and the non-action badly, but I’ve come to expect that from a Besson-produced movie. They are solid if unspectacular, workmanlike even but still something I look forward to. With shades of previous Besson works such as District 9, Leon & Nikita, there’s air of familiarity around Colombiana, but not in a bad way. With no grand ideas above its station, the film does exactly what is says on the tin. And there’s something to be said for that.
*What’s that I hear about spoilers? Come on. If you couldn’t guess this would happen the moment I mentioned an FBI agent, you really haven’t seen many action films!