The action genre has long been deemed the realm of the “guy movie.” But there are some filmmakers who have devoted themselves to bringing the artistry and universal appeal back to the genre. One such filmmaker is Luc Besson, who has directed, written, and/or produced some of the most interesting, exciting and visually stunning action films of the last twenty years. With the sci-fi actioner Lockout hitting theaters this week, a film for which Besson again served as producer and co-writer, we thought we’d offer a few of his past films as evidence of his mastery of action cinema.
In 1994, Natalie Portman was not an Oscar winner. In fact, she wasn’t even old enough to drive a car. However, tween-age Portman turned in what I still consider to be one of the finest performances of her career, in the Besson-directed/written The Professional.
In the film, she plays a young girl whose family is murdered, forcing her into the care of a softhearted hitman played by Jean Reno. Shot like a visual poem, and featuring a dynamite turn by Gary Oldman as one of filmdom’s most insane killers, The Professional boasts some phenomenal gunplay. One particularly operatic shootout spellbounds during each and every rewatch.
By now it seems most people are familiar with parkour, as it has been used in a number of action films over the last few years. This combination of acrobatics and perfect weight distribution is designed to eliminate all obstacles and therefore make forward progress as perpetual as possible. In 2004, the Besson-produced and co-written District B13 made a cinematic science out of what was previously merely an Internet phenomenon.
The story of a hard-hitting, nimble police officer sent into a Paris ghetto to defuse a nuclear weapon, District B13 has arguably one of the most impressive and mind-boggling opening sequences of any action film ever made. If nothing else, it’ll have you contemplating the most creative method of navigating through every building you enter from that point forward.
There are those who contend that the worth of any given sci-fi film is predicated upon the scope and detail of the world it creates for itself. To wit, 1997’s The Fifth Element is a rousing success for the genre. Starring Bruce Willis as a futuristic cabbie forced into the center of a centuries-old struggle for the universe’s ultimate weapon, Besson’s The Fifth Element, for which he also wrote the screenplay, is a bizarre tapestry of flying cars, monsters, and intergalactic politics. Once again featuring a rather off the wall performance from the immensely talented Gary Oldman, The Fifth Element combines techno shootouts, martial arts, and one spectacular hovercar chase that neatly punctuates this odd, wonderful sci-fi opus.
Jet Li is an international action sensation, so it was only a matter of time before he and Luc Besson crossed paths. In 2005, Besson produced and wrote Louis Leterrier’s Unleashed starring Li and the incomparable Bob Hoskins. The story revolves around a young man trained in the deadly martial arts, and who basically lives as a dog. He wears a collar that keeps him docile. But the moment his master, a ruthless gangster, removes the collar, he becomes an unstoppable killing machine. It is true that the fight sequences in this film are brutal and will leave you gasping for breath, but it’s the gripping story and Li’s amazing performance that sets it apart and makes it a film you simply cannot miss.
Before 2009’s Taken, many people knew who Liam Neeson was, and probably were familiar with his prestigious body of work. And yet his starring role as a former secret agent whose daughter is kidnapped by human traffickers in Taken reintroduced us to the ass-kicking, name-taking action hero and rejuvenated his entire career. What is so spectacular about Taken, for which Besson served as a producer and co-writer, is how incredibly streamlined it is. Not only do we see Neeson beating a path of retributive pain and destruction through the Paris underworld, but there is also not an ounce of fat on the entire film. Neeson’s character is a force of nature that will not be the slightest bit deterred from his quest, so the action does not let up until the credits roll.