Luc Besson: a premature obituary

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Following the release of the abysmal The Family, we felt it was time to say goodbye to our respect for Luc Besson.

Luc Besson was a French film auteur known primarily for his impressive flair for visuals, violence and music video-esque editing. After being propelled into the spotlight via successful Hollywood forays Leon and The Fifth Element, Besson began to concentrate on more lucrative, mainstream projects. In late 2013, the unknown condition that was clearly robbing him of his sanity finally won out. In a fit of delirious pique, he directed the risible Robert De Niro vehicle The Family before slipping into a coma from which he shall never wake.

If any of that last bit were true, and this really was an obituary for Luc Besson, then the last film he would have directed would have been The Family, and that makes me sick. I loved Luc Besson. I loved his visual eye and lack of snobbery. I loved how successfully he managed to juggle camp with grit. I loved all the colours and the shapes. So, as a little tribute to a director I love and who is now sort of dead to me, here is a countdown of all of Besson’s career highlights. Let’s have a look at where it all went wrong.


Nikita (1990)


Besson’s first big hit was a sort of cartoony proto-Bourne: Nikita was visually stunning, tense and with a scene stealing performance from Jean Reno as a man who melts people with hydrochloric acid. Nikita herself was gratifyingly sexy and shared her name with a type of fictional, remote-controlled rocket popularised by the Metal Gear Solid video game series. The ‘Nikita’ rocket was key in finally killing Vulcan Raven and advancing to the underground maintenance base. I am a professional journalist.


Leon: The Professional (1994)

leon jean reno natalie portman

A marked step up from the promising, yet shaky Nikita. Leon had a tighter story and cooler characters, with Jean Reno starring as the titular conflicted assassin, a young Natalie Portman as his avenging, jailbait sidekick and Gary Oldman as a mad old policeman. Managing to look both grimy and gorgeous thanks to the almost exclusive use of faded, art deco architecture and beautifully choreographed violence, Leon was a fantastic Hollywood debut for the young Luc Besson. There were also some pretty uncomfortably sexual undertones to Leon’s relationship with Portman’s 12 year old character, you know, for the lads.


The Fifth Element (1997)

the fifth element

Besson’s best-known film to date, the Fifth Element was either the best shit film of the 90s or shittest good film of the forevers. Hard to say. It stars Milla Jovovich and Bruce Willis as a human tree and a hard-as-nails taxi driver in an orange spandex vest, respectively. Besson reportedly began writing The Fifth Element when he was 16, and it shows. However, with Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud in charge of production design and Jean-Paul Gaultier providing the wardrobe, The Fifth Element didn’t really need a massively coherent plot to show the artistry that could go into a parody of a well-trod and cliche-ridden genre.


The Transporter (2002)

the transporter

And here’s where it all starts to go a bit wrong for Besson. The Transporter saw the beginning of a decade-long fixation with screenplay writing, bad screenplay writing at that. Besson was never a great writer – sure Leon had a cool script and the Fifth Element was fun, but what made those films great was the application of Besson’s flair behind the camera. With the directing credit going to Louis Leterrier (he made Clash of the Titans) and Besson behind the writing desk, The Transporter was an exercise in unambitious action shite. Notable in that it did give Jason ‘Latterday Brando’ Statham’s career a real shot in the arm, so thank God for that, eh?


Taken (2008)


“Hey Besson.”


“Remember how you made that film about a conflicted man with a strict moral code who punches people for 90 minutes?”


“Well, how about we give you a preposterous amount of money to make a film about a slightly more famous conflicted man with a strict moral code punching brown people?”


We all know Taken was racist in that post-9/11 way everything is racist now, but you might be surprised to know that it was also kind of misogynistic as well. Another hack writing job from Besson, Taken was a pretty grim turning point for the auteur. Its spectacular pandering to right-wing, focus-tested stupidity saw Liam Neeson as an ex-CIA guy who has to kill nasty Albanian sex traffickers who have kidnapped his daughter, so it’s OK. A paranoid, righteous revenge disaster, Taken has been Besson’s lowest point thus far.


the family de niro what have you done

Until now, of course. What upsets me the most is how this just totally crystallises the career trajectory of most auteur directors. Guillermo del Toro, Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg made good films after selling out, but was Pacific Rim quite as resonant and haunting as Pan’s Labyrinth? Did Gladiator disquiet and spellbind you as much as Alien?

And Besson clearly knows quality; he produced both The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Tell No One, after all. So what’s he doing? Is this dearth in quality on his part intentional? As a man who managed, for several years, to straddle the line between mainstream success and artistic weirdness, we could use some of that old magic now, in our monochrome Hollywood graveyard of a new millenium.


Featured image: Thierry Caro (via Wikimedia Commons)

Inset images: The Samuel Goldwyn Company; Columbia; Columbia; 20th Century Fox; 20th Century Fox; Relativity Media

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