COLOMBIANA: A Formidable Action Machine… On Autopilot

It’s sad what has become of the action film.  Once a champion at the box office, it has been replaced by CGI-driven spectacles and ghetto-ized into the straight-to-video world.

Still, there are a few who carry the torch for the genre and do their best to keep it at the multiplexes.  The team of Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen deserve kudos in this regard.  Besson serves as idea man, producer and sometimes director with Kamen being the man who brings the stories to fruition in script form.  Together, they’ve delivered a string of worthy action fare like Kiss Of The Dragon, Unleashed and Taken.  However, they all can’t be hits – and Colombiana is an example of what happens when the Besson/Kamen machine isn’t firing on all cylinders.

The plotline is standard fodder, right down to the quasi-feminist twist: Cataleya (Zoe Saldana) is an improbably sexy professional assassin.  She chose this line of work after seeing her parents murdered by a drug kingpin in Bogota, which is shown in a prologue that makes up most of the first act.  However, she is endangering herself and the life of mentor/go-between Emilio (Cliff Curtis) by making her work personal.  She is plotting revenge on her parents’ killers – and when they catch on to her game, the stakes are upped dramatically as the story works its way to a bullet-riddled finale.

If every beat of the above sounds familiar, it is.  Besson and Kamen’s story is composed entirely of characters and story beats that have appeared in countless action films over the last 30 years.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the film has fresh twists to offer on these familiar elements but it doesn’t.  There isn’t a single surprise applied to the plotting and characterizations.

To make matters worse, there is a laziness to the storytelling that suggest that Besson and Kamen didn’t think the story through with care.  The introductory prologue goes on way too long and frequently borders on self-parody.  It also includes a ludicrous moment where Emilio forces Cataleya to choose whether she will live a normal life or pursue revenge.  To force her hand, he does something so implausible and monumentally stupid that it might make you laugh out loud.

An even bigger mistake is made around the turning point between acts two and three. Without getting too heavily into spoilers, the story hinges upon our heroine – supposedly a professional in her line of work – making a rookie-level mistake in her revenge plan.  It’s the kind of thing that will pull any semi-experienced viewer right out of the story because it breaks the suspension of disbelief these stories require.  It’s also annoying because it robs the dramatic moments that follow of the operatic emotion they are obviously reaching for.

The slipshod storytelling is a shame because Colombiana has some moments where you can see a better action flick trying to break through.  The sequence where the adult Cataleya is introduced has her pulling off a tricky assassination in a jail that is as beautifully crafted as it is clever.  The finale also features a fantastic fight scene where Cataleya and a nemesis square off in a tiny bathroom, tailoring down their fighting skills to the tiny space and using normally harmless bathroom items as weapons.  Conceptually, this cribs a bit from a famous fight in a previous Besson production, District 13, but it’s done so well that fans won’t mind.

The film also sports an excellent cast.  Saldana is compelling as the heroine, giving levels of commitment and emotion to the characterization that make it seem more interesting than it actually is.  Curtis is typically reliable as the mentor, with he and Saldana propping up otherwise pro-forma verbal exchanges with a nice level of emotion, and Jordi Molla is supremely creepy as the cold-blooded main henchman of the kingpin.

Simply put, Colombiana is a programmer, and a lazy one at that.  The solid cast and flashy direction from Besson protege Olivier Megaton can’t disguise that the story is merely a flimsy thread that barely keeps together a handful of cool action setpieces.  What remains can function as a passable time-waster on t.v. during a Saturday afternoon – but Colombiana falls apart the second you start thinking about it and it is intensely disappointing if you think of it as a followup to the superb Taken.  Besson and Kamen are capable of much more so let’s hope they put more effort into their next storyline.

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