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Luc Besson has become synonymous with action fare at U.S. multiplexes. However, there is a more fantasy/sci-fi side to his filmography that doesn’t always make it across the Atlantic to American audiences. One of the most interesting examples of recent vintage in the latter category is The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec. It was not picked up for theatrical distribution in the U.S., having to settle for a home video release a good three years after the fact. This is a shame because this film has a sense of whimsy and a playfulness that is all too rare in modern Hollywood event movies.

The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec is a based on a comic book series by Jacques Tardi and takes place in Paris during the early years of the 20th century. The titular figure (Louise Bourgoin) is our heroine, a globetrotting writer and archaeologist who is searching for a mystical cure to a bizarre medical condition affecting her sister, Agathe (Laure de Clermont-Tonerre). Said quest involves bringing a mummy back from the tomb of Ramses II in Egypt for a very unusual ritual.

However, her quest is just one part of a larger plot: Professor Esperandieu (Jacky Nercissian) is a friend of Adele’s who is supposed to help her in her planned ritual – but he gets himself in trouble when he uses his psychic abilities to hatch a pterodactyl egg and mentally inhabit its young hatchling. Unfortunately, he can’t control the pterodactyl when he is awake – and the beast creates havoc that gets him arrested by policeman Caponi (Gilles Lelouche) and sentenced to execution. Adele also has to contend with Professor Dieuleveult (Mathieu Amalric), a particularly unscrupulous rival, and Andrej (Nicolas Giraud), a scientist nursing a serious crush on Adele.

The script favors breathless busyness over content, with characters often getting lost in the restless cross-cutting of the plot: Dieuleveult is given a big introduction but is ultimately a glorified cameo rather than a true villain and Adele herself doesn’t really get skillfully integrated into the plotline until the film’s second half. One could also argue that the story mostly favors spectacle and gags over characterization or emotional content.

However, it’s quite obvious this is a film that is about the wide-eyed joy of fantasy-driven storytelling, with the plot acting as a fanciful cocktail that fuels the visual storytelling feats of Besson and company. It’s pure pulp, in the best sense of that phrase – and there’s a certain proto-feminist angle beneath the thrills, with Adele having to triumph time and again over disbelieving men in positions of authority, that enhances its appeal.

The whiz-bang approach works more often than not because the film has a contagious sense of fun. This spirit is captured nicely in the setpieces, particularly an extended opening sequence that breathlessly introduces a variety of characters and hits notes both humorous and scary as it culminates the first flight of the pterodactyl. There’s also a fun treasure-and-traps sequence in an Egyptian tomb that is more entertaining and better choreographed than anything in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Besson choreographs these scenes with the right mix of confidence and enthusiasm – and his work is bolstered nicely by a John Williams-esque score by Eric Serra and comic-book colorful cinematography from Thierry Arbogast, both regular Besson collaborators.

The cast also plays a major role in contributing to the film’s boundless energy. Bourgoin is a real spitfire as Adele, capturing the can-do relentlessness of the character and showing some nice comic timing in scenes where she has to don disguises. Nercissian skillfully uses his physicality to breathe life into his heavy character FX makeup and Lelouche shows an amusingly deadpan sense of humor as the cop. There are also a variety of bit roles livened up by actors cast for their unusual features, like in a Sergio Leone film – and they enhance the film’s cartoonishly odd vibe.

In short, The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec offers a fun alternative to the usual popcorn adventure fare, applying a light and witty touch to its fast-paced spectacle. American directors of summer blockbusters would do well to take a page from this film’s sense of style.