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Movie

The Fifth Element
(1997)

 

Goofy movies that don’t announce their intent or stick to clearly-defined genre templates can get a rough ride. Ones that exhibit a “European” sense of humour even more so. Luc Besson’s long-gestating science fiction fantasy action comedy (he had the idea when he was fifteen, which critics would surely claim tells you everything) is underpinned by the simplest – some would say trite and hackneyed – of concepts, but unlike, say, Ridley Scott’s Legend, which also paints on the most unsophisticated of thematic canvasses, The Fifth Element’s core sincerity is diffused by overwhelming irreverence everywhere else. This is a mad, crazy, whacky, indulgent, over the top, immensely likeable rush of a movie, added to which it boasts design work as breath-taking as Blade Runner’s, albeit shooting in completely the opposite direction. Most of all, it is shamelessly, flamboyantly camp, which can be a very difficult sell to more conservative tastes.

If I were to find fault in The Fifth Element, I might point to that freeze-frame ending, which is on the naff side (and much as I like the Roger Moore Bonds, repeating the “He’s busy shagging sir” motif doesn’t quite work here; more in tune is the stewardess climaxing via Ruby as a bomb goes off), and that Leeloo’s reaction to all the hurt that humans inflict, even in such an intentionally unrefined manner as depicted here, is so overdone, it’s difficult not to groan at the faux-naivety. But those are relatively minor shortcomings. I adore the picture’s exuberance, its dedication to being its own thing, kowtowing to no one for pointers on acceptable approaches or genre boundaries. Such individuality, though, can do for a picture if it’s unleashed on unsympathetic critics and audiences. It’s particularly notable that the movie made 75 percent of its take outside the US (it came in ninth for the year globally), even with the Brucie bonus factor to bolster its appeal.

Ah yes, Bruce Willis. Even at his zenith, Willis’ bankability was patchy, but he still managed a Top Ten movie globally in five years of that decade. The Fifth Element represents something of a transition point, however. This is the last time we will really see fun Bruce Willis, the Bruce Willis who, for all the stories of an unchained ego, delivered something charismatic and relatable, above and beyond the all-purpose steely, impassive gaze masquerading as depth or thoughtfulness (and more commonly an all-purpose steely, impassive gaze on auto-pilot).

This is just about the last time we’d reap dividends from Willis’ willingness to mock himself or not take himself and his “craft” seriously (he even gets bopped on the head, and doesn’t shoot anyone until the third act). Sure, there are a few comedic exceptions later (Disney’s The KidThe Whole Nine Yards) but they aren’t ones to be celebrated. Here we get Willis with his Die Hard gun-toting and his whip smart, whacky, mouthing off (Hudson Hawk), and it’s refreshing to recall just why he was a star back then. He has long-since calcified, alas.

He looks like he’s having a ball here, but then again so does Gary Oldman as villain Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg. Oldman later attested that he took the gig merely to return a favour to Besson, commenting “Oh no. I can’t bear it”. Which is a shame, as he’s great, rising to the occasion of cartoonish eccentricity-and-then-some in a role where he doesn’t even share screen time with the protagonist (his arms sale to the incompetent Mangalores – “My favourite”, as he lets off a flamethrower – is a particular delight). Of course, Willis’ villains have a habit of blanking all notion of the merit in his more madcap vehicles, with Richard E Grant failing to register the appeal of Hudson Hawk (“What drugs do you take, young man?”), a similarly curate’s egg of a movie.

Almost everyone here could be said to elicit mixed responses from audiences, none more so than Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod. I’m generally quite cool on Tucker’s schtick (not that there’s much of it to assess, outside of Rush Hour sequels), but he slays it as the motor-mouthed pan-sexual Prince clone (the role was originally intended for the recently deceased purple pop star), and somehow gets away with implied cunnilingus in PG-rated fare.

And where else could you gather such an eclectic cast? Willis sharing screen time with Lee Evans?! Gary Oldman accompanied by henchman Tricky (and the latter quite funny at that)? Tiny Lister as the President of Earth? Brion James as a good guy? Ian Holm doing comedy Ian Holm (and stealing whole scenes; he completely gets Besson’s tone)? Luke Perry…

There’s also John Bennett showing up as an Egyptian, continuing his status as a go-to for various ethnicities, and two decades after donning yellow face in Doctor Who’s The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Not that I think Besson would have seen it, but the casting here generally does suggest jackdaw appreciation of genre fare, from Gilliam (Holm in Brazil rather than Holm in Alien, John Neville in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), to the aforementioned James (more in Crimewave mode than Blade Runner).

And Milla Jovovich as the supreme being of the universe showing a flair for comedy that’s been too-little tapped (see the Zoolanders) along with a beguiling innocence suggestive of a sexually precocious Starman (Bridges), in designer Gaultier threads (and they are mere threads, at least at the start).

Jovovich married Besson for a spell, of course, before getting hitched to Paul W Anderson and becoming most identified in the less than sterling, but financial robust, Resident Evil franchise. She’s every bit as vital to The Fifth Element’s success as Willis and Oldman, with her pigeon English and Neo-like capacity for learning Kung Fu from watching TV (I wonder where the Wachowskis got their idea from?) What exactly is the nature of Leeloo’s supreme being-ness that she goes on to have a normal relationship with a human? Besson is really unconcerned by such things; it’s a “love conquers all” scenario, not one to be analysed for literal sense, since the premise doesn’t support any kind of literal sense.

Much as I wish Besson well with his return to the lavish sci-fi well in next year’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I’m given pause by the lead casting; Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Ethan Hawke?  DeHaan in particular is a fine actor, but there’s a distinct danger that, whatever the merits of the movie, the performers will slide indistinctly into the bold, captivating spectacle Besson is fashioning. Look what happened with the similarly star-deficient Jupiter AscendingGodzilla, and recent Ben-Hur.

Valerian is sure to look amazing, at any rate, since Besson’s facility for science fiction world building (putting Lucy to one side) is up there with the greats. Here he eschews the darkness and gloom of dystopian sci-fi and instead accomplishes the impossible feat of something equally arresting. An over-populated, cramped, industrialised Earth that manages not to be depressing (there’s no greenery here; even the 1914 prologue is all desert), one where even the corporate culpability that is McDonalds is to be perversely celebrated/ripped.

Mostly because he populates it with bizarre, absurd (those police uniforms), colourful costumes, daft conceits (even the cigarettes are reversed), and awesome design work from Moebius (Jean Giraud) and Valerian artist Jean-Claude Mezieres. The cityscape is amazing, the air cars extraordinary (the effects still look top notch), and the creature designs are just the right side of silly.

DallasUrgh, just found a picture of you.
MunroHow do I look?
DallasLike shit.
MunroMust be an old picture.

The movie is full of lovely little asides and irresistible details, from the prologue onwards (“Ah-ah, are you German?” asks John Bluthal’s Professor Pacoli of the Mondoshawans) to the ever-present voice of Korben Dallas’ mum (“You miserable bastard, I should never have pushed you out”) and the banter with James’ General Munro, to Mathieu Kassovitz’s incompetent, drugged-up mugger (“That’s a nice hat”: “You like it?”), all staged and framed by Besson with an eye for the bold, clean, and caricatured, ready to bust right out of the frame.

There’s Korben’s boss-eyed cat, the priests’ coyness over Leeloo and Munro’s lack thereof (“I’d like to take a few pictures – for the archives”; such invasiveness is counterpointed when Dallas is told at gunpoint “Never without my permission” after he kisses her sleeping), Zorg choking as a desktop elephant gets popped with a cherry, Dallas asking Cornelius “But you must drink a lot of coffee being a priest, huh?”, and the Marx Brothers-esque hiding of various parties in Corbin’s cramped apartment.

CorneliusYou are a monster, Zorg.
ZorgI know.

And accompanying the proceedings is a magnificently rambunctious electronic score from Eric Serra. Serra copped a lot of flak for his contribution to Goldeneye two years earlier (I mostly really liked it), and his work has generally been confined to servicing Besson, for whom he is the perfect accompaniment, offering bold rhythmic beats that synchronise dramatically or humorously with the precisely edited images. For all the wackiness, he can also provoke awe, such as the operatic performance by Diva Plavalaguna (Inva Mula did the singing, while Maiwenn Le Besco, who was married to Luc Besson, personified her; the liaison between Besson and Maiwenn is a whole can of worms, particularly if it leads you to read strong elements of autobiography into Léon).

What of the thematic core then, that of the fifth element being love (in concert with “Evil begets evil, Mr President”)? I mean, it’s childlike and artless, but while I’m usually one to scowl at such obviousness in a movie, I find it very easy to be pulled along here, the aforementioned “What’s the use of saving life when you see what you do to it” aside (also rather clunkily called upon in Cameron’s The Abyss eight years earlier). It’s not as if the almighty force threatening to destroy the universe isn’t a tried and tested trope (at least two Star Trek movies have employed it), and the verve and panache of the telling, and chemistry between Willis and Jovovich, leave me with little to grumble about.

I don’t think The Fifth Element is a particularly deep film (and its self-awareness and high camp make it resistant to the kind of analyses that would ascribe serious layering, be it in terms of gender stereotyping or profound commentary on our capacity for self-destruction), but it’s a tremendously good-spirited one, encapsulating a joie de vivre and infectious knockabout anarchy, combined with its director at his unfettered best.

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