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Savage Innocence

by Shawn Stone on August 31, 2011

Directed by Olivier Megaton

Though directed with style by Olivier Megaton, there’s no mistaking Colombiana for anything but another trip into the fantastic world of Luc Besson. Besson’s is a comic-book reality where the most fascinating creatures are serious little girls or sexy young women who fight (and if necessary kill) with youthful élan. These heroines have ranged from Natalie Portman’s orphan turned hit girl in Leon, the Professional to Qi Shu’s kidnap victim in The Transporter to (most improbably) Milla Jovovich’s Joan of Arc in The Messenger. No matter what terrible or outrageous deeds they do—or have done in their name—they remain, at heart, innocent.

It is reasonable to find this creepy, and in exactly the same way a lot of anime is creepy. And yet, one must admit that, whatever baggage comes with Bessonism, at least it’s an ethos. His child-women have agency, even if, to steal a line from Bob Dylan, they break like little girls. The latter usually comes just before they gird themselves for the final asskicking.

Sometimes Besson directs; here, he’s a producer and co-author of the screenplay. And this one’s a doozy: The disarmingly calm, serious 10-year-old Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg), named for a flower, watches her parents murdered. She escapes Colombia to live with relatives in Chicago, and grows up to be a lethal and merciless hit woman, played by the lethally assured Zoe Saldana. The contract killing is just a day job, however; she uses the lucrative proceeds to blaze a bloody vigilante trail that she hopes will lead to—you guessed it—the druglord who had her parents killed.

The first half hour of Colombiana is a ridiculous, delirious, wonderful rush. First, there is an escape that easily tops a similar chase through the Rio slums in this summer’s Fast Five both in terms of pure excitement and formal clarity. Then, young Cataleya’s place with her uncle and grandmother in Chicago is economically established. Cliff Curtis is all rough-edged charm as the uncle; he’s another of Besson’s asshole-with-a-heart-of-gold male authority figures for whom violence is an expression of wit. Finally, the filmmakers introduce Saldana as the grown-up Cataleya in a dazzling set piece that allows her to show off her acting chops as well as her form. (Acting while kicking ass is harder than it looks; some enterprising producer should team her up with Statham.) It’s a complex sequence that stops just short of being Tom Cruise-in-Mission: Impossible-level stupid.

If the other 60-or-so minutes aren’t quite as, um, awesome, Colombiana remains thoroughly entertaining. The filmmakers keep a few clever tricks in reserve for the heroine to spring on her enemies, and fill out the cast with memorable actors like Lennie James (one of the would-be diamond snatchers in Snatch) as a harried FBI guy and Jordi Mollà (very good in the middling Knight and Day) as a henchman-thug. In the end, though, it’s Besson’s kingdom, and the girl-woman triumphs; in Saldana, he’s found his most convincing champion yet.