Features
The best and worst Luc Besson movies


Date Posted: 17 July 2017


Luc Besson (back) with his "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" co-stars
Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne.

Come this 20 July, it will mark Luc Besson's highly-anticipated comeback to sci-fi territory since "The Fifth Element" in 1997 and "Lucy" in 2014.

Based on the French comic series "Valérian and Laureline" by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, "Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets" has already earned its distinction as the most expensive production ever made in French movie history.

Whether or not Luc Besson's new movie able to replicate or even upstage the success of his two aforementioned sci-fi films is still anybody's guess, but one thing for sure, it certainly looks visually stunning based from the trailers alone.

As we await the release of "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets", we have compiled the best and worst directorial efforts from Luc Besson.

Read up for our selected list of movies and decide if this filmmaker's work is one you should watch.

The Best

 

1. "Subway" (1985)

Fred (Christopher Lambert) takes refuge in a Paris Metro subway underground in
"Subway".

One of the essential French movies that defined the style-over-substance film movement of cinéma du look in the 80s, "Subway" is also best known as the launching pad for the then-young career of Luc Besson. Although this is only his second feature-length movie following his near-silent post-apocalyptic debut via "Le Dernier Combat" a.k.a. "The Last Battle" two years prior, Besson has already proven his worth as a great visual stylist. In "Subway", pre-"Highlander" star Christopher Lambert plays Fred, a thief who ends up taking refuge in the Paris Metro subway after stealing some important documents from a wealthy businessman. From there, he makes a few friends including Roller (Jean-Hugues Anglade), a purse snatcher who often roams around the subway wearing his roller skates and Roller's nameless drummer friend (Jean Reno). Fred, who also tries to evade the local police, falls in love with the businessman's trophy wife Héléna (Isabelle Adjani) and even wanted to form his own pop band. The plot is admittedly slim and flimsy, but Besson manages to offset the movie's shortcomings with his stylish direction alongside Alexandre Trauner's dazzling production design that captured the Paris Metro subway like another world of its own. Eric Serra's synth score is spot-on, while the action set-pieces, including the opening car chase and the roller skating chase scene, are both impressively staged to thrilling perfection. Finally, there's Isabelle Adjani, whose ravishing beauty and her fancy-looking 80s dresses alone, are among the movie's high points.

2. "La Femme Nikita" (1990)

The iconic restaurant kitchen shootout scene in "La Femme Nikita".

"La Femme Nikita" a.k.a. "Nikita", which centres on a drug-addicted thug (Anne Parillaud) given a second chance to repay her dues by working as a top-secret government assassin, is one of Luc Besson's earlier movies that earned him a distinction as a renowned Euro action specialist. Parillaud, who happened to be Besson's wife back in the day, is one of the main reasons that contributed to the movie's international success. Her transformation from an aimless teenager to a sexy yet sympathetic woman is particularly well-acted, which in turn, also showcased Besson's ability for creating a strong female character.

3. "Léon: The Professional" (1994)

Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in "Léon: The Professional".

Luc Besson's hot streak as an action director continues with his first American debut, "Léon: The Professional", which is also one of his most celebrated directorial efforts in his career. In this action-movie classic, Besson regular Jean Reno plays the titular hitman who strikes an unlikely friendship with a 12-year-old girl, Mathilda (Natalie Portman), after her family is brutally killed by a corrupted DEA agent, Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Besson, who also scripted the movie, successfully mixes strong character-driven drama of a relationship between the two leads with a thrilling action-movie showcase. Jean Reno delivers a spot-on performance as a ruthless assassin with a heart of gold, while then 12-year-old newcomer Natalie Portman nearly stole the show with her sympathetic role as Mathilda. Gary Oldman, in the meantime, excels in one of the most memorable antagonist roles ever seen in modern action cinema.

4. "The Fifth Element" (1997)

Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich in "The Fifth Element".

Following the international success of "Léon: The Professional", Luc Besson was finally given the greenlight to fulfil his longtime pet project since he first developed the script at the age of 16. The result is "The Fifth Element", a lavish sci-fi action centering on former high-ranking Special Forces officer-turned-cab driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) who ends up protecting a mysterious girl named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). Back in 1997, "The Fifth Element" was the most expensive non-US movie ever made that carried a hefty USD90 million budget. Fortunately, the huge gamble paid off well after the movie managed to make more than USD263 million at the worldwide box office. From the technical standpoint alone, "The Fifth Element" boasts some of the most spectacular visuals ever seen in modern sci-fi cinema. From the vibrant set design that perfectly envisioned the futuristic busy cityscape of New York to the colourful costume design by Jean-Paul Gaultier, Besson and his technical team certainly deserved all the kudos for their hard work. Finally, "The Fifth Element" is also best known for Milla Jovovich's breakout performance as Leeloo, while the pre-"Rush Hour" star Chris Tucker almost steals the show with his gleefully over-the-top minor role as DJ Ruby Rhod.

5. "Lucy" (2014)

Scarlett Johansson plays the title superhuman character in "Lucy".

Heavily marketed as an action-packed thriller with a sci-fi undertone, "Lucy" turned out to be a surprise cerebral package after all by writer-director Luc Besson. In this sci-fi thriller, Scarlett Johansson plays the title character who is forced to smuggle a synthetic drug implanted into her stomach out of the country by a Korean gangster (Choi Min-Sik). She inadvertently turns into a superhuman when one of her captors kicks her hard in the stomach and causes the drug to leak into her body system. Besson is at the top of his game here, delivering a robust mix of brainy sci-fi tropes with stylish action beats. Although the overall premise is admittedly over-the-top, "Lucy" remains compulsively watchable due to Scarlett Johansson's committed performance as the title character.

The Worst

 

1. "The Big Blue" (1988)

Jean Reno and Jean-Marc Barr play two rivals of free-diving in "The Big Blue".

Otherwise known as "Le Grand Bleu" in France, Luc Besson's first English-language feature tells a story about the rivalry between two childhood friends, Enzo (Jean Reno) and Jacques (Jean-Marc Barr), who are both experts in free-diving. "The Big Blue" is a triumph of its technical achievement, ranging from Carlo Varini's breathtaking underwater cinematography to Dan Weil's sumptuous production design that makes you feel like you are watching a travelogue. Then, there's Eric Serra's serene yet hypnotic score that earned his well-deserved win for Best Music at the César Awards. But for all the gorgeous visual that immerses you throughout the movie, "The Big Blue" feels emotionally hollow. Even the plot is sketchy, despite the nearly three-hour length seen in the director's cut. This reviewer has previously seen the trimmed version as well during the VHS era, but regardless of the shorter or longer cut, both of them actually makes little difference. Both versions are deeply pretentious and drag too long for its own good.

2. "The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc" (1999)

Milla Jovovich plays the title character in "The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc".

This is the movie that could have been an Oscar contender. While "The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc" did secure an impressive total of eight nominations at France's César Awards and managed to win two awards including Best Sound and Best Costume Design, Luc Besson's big-budget historical epic is both a critical and financial disaster of, well, epic proportion. Sure, Besson knows how to mount a grand-scale production filled with impeccable sets and costume designs. He even knows his way around choreographing gritty battle scenes that don't skimp away from graphic war violence, and some of the surrealistic imagery that goes through Joan's mind is visually breathtaking. But the movie fails big time when it matters the most, the leading actress who played the titular character herself. Milla Jovovich, fresh from her breakthrough success in "The Fifth Element" two years prior, is terribly miscast as Joan of Arc. Even with her hair trimmed short in a manly bowl-cut style, it's hard to imagine a model-turned-actress like her is able to pull off such a convincing role of a peasant girl who, in turn, looks inappropriately too modern and photogenic? Even the plot itself suffered from a schizophrenic tone. At one point, the movie wanted to be both melancholy and tragic. But at some other points, it tends to be unintentionally laughable, particularly with the introduction of comical side characters who play the French army.

3. "Malavita" (2013)

Robert De Niro in a scene from "Malavita" a.k.a. "The Family".

With a trio of Hollywood veterans that includes Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones along with the legendary Martin Scorsese serving as one of the executive producers, "Malavita" (or "The Family" in the US release) should have been a movie to look forward to, but Luc Besson does the impossible by making this mob comedy... surprisingly unfunny. The movie, which is adapted from Tonino Benacquista's novel and centres around a former Brooklyn mob boss (Robert De Niro) alongside his wife and children (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron and John D'Leo) who is placed in a FBI witness protection program for snitching on his Mafia family, slogs throughout the nearly two-hour length with lifeless performances all around. Even by the time the movie reaches to the climactic shootout finale, Besson could have redeemed something with his nifty action set-piece. Too bad, that doesn't happen either and what we're left with instead is a mob comedy so embarrassingly bad, especially given the calibre of all the talents involved here.

"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" opens in cinemas nationwide on 20 July 2017.

Writer: Casey Chong



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