The Fifth Element

on May 09, 1997 by Kim Williamson
   In his three most recent films--"La Femme Nikita," "The Professional" and now "The Fifth Element"--an index of filmmaker Luc Besson's artistic success has been the amount of romantic frisson generated by his story. In "La Femme Nikita," with a grown gamine falling in love with the man who was training her to be a killer, that success was vast; in "The Professional," with an older hitman finding himself the center of an under-age gamine's attention, that success was considerable (even as sanitized by Columbia); in his new "The Fifth Element," in which a 23rd century taxi driver (Bruce Willis) must protect a young/old gamine (Milla Jovovich) who as the eternal and DNA-reincarnated perfection of life is the world's only hope against an evil force, that success is more modest. Fortunately, a concomitant success index--of Besson's ability to dazzle audiences with action pyrotechnics--has not lessened.
   "The Fifth Element" affords Besson a galactic stage--and the fivefold increase in budget (French production Gaumont prices it at $90 million, Gaul's most expensive cinema effort ever)--and with it Besson creates an especially "movable" feast. Even when the film is idling, Dan Weil (who's worked with Besson since "The Big Blue")-- leading a design team that includes Jean "Moebius" Giraud (illustrator of "Metal Hurlant," aka "Heavy Metal," magazine) and Jean-Claude Mezieres, illustrator of the Valerian, Agent Spatio-Temporel graphic novels --and costumer Jean-Paul Gaultier ("The City of Lost Children") make sure plenty is going on visually.
   As with most SF, the story is high-school simple (Besson conceived the idea when he was 16): good vs. evil. In this reiteration of that well-worn theme, a former military man turned New York cabbie, Korben Dallas, crosses paths with a beautiful young woman named Leeloo, whose perfection is of both body and soul. As such, she is the only being--formerly protected by a race of good-hearted if implausibly evolved creatures called the Mondoshawan--who can unite the powers of the four ancient elements--earth, air, fire and water-- that together gave rise to life to save the earth from attack by a power of anti-life, which has access to this universe every 5,000 years through a blackhole-like rift. The evil force is being abetted (inexplicably) by a world-powerful businessman, Zorg ("The Professional's" Gary Oldman, as idiosyncratic here in performance but to much less threatening effect), and his army of mercenaries, the canine-like Mangalores. Also in the character mix is a mystic/priest, Cornelius ("Big Night's" Ian Holm), who would have been more effective if written with more seriousness, and a famous radio performer, Ruby Rhod ("Dead Presidents'" Chris Tucker, simply fabulous as a post-1999 incarnation of Prince); the extended screen time given to Rhod's outlandishness, however entertaining, further undercuts the gravity a cosmos-in-peril tale requires. It's more burlesque than it is "Blade Runner."
   Knowing the original story was hatched by a 16-year-old, who was seeking creative escape from boarding-school life in a small French village, one might worry about the depth and complexity of the world at hand being created. Perhaps it's the intervening 22 years Besson has lived that allowed time for its elaboration, but that turns out not to be a problem. So wonderfully overwrought are the heavy-metal kinetics of the narrative presentation that the audience is unlikely to worry much about whether the story is cosmologically cohesive, or even logical. That's fortunate, for the answer to both is no. The film's most basic conceit--that there is an anti-life that, despite its nature, can have a desire and can operate physically in this universe, using its elements--is not only never explained, it can't be. That puts earth and its humanity much less believably in harm's way, which is the opposite intent of an effectively designed good-vs.-evil scenario.
   As the antihero, Bruce Willis is much less challenged here than in the similar-genre "12 Monkeys," but his cocky smirk is all that is required, and he delivers. (Interesting, at a mid-April industry screening as the opening credits rolled, the names of Besson, Oldman, composer Eric Serra and SFX supervisor Mark Stetson--Digital Domain staffers were a chunk of the audience--garnered good applause, but Willis' drew nary a clap.) Jovovich, dressed by Gaultier and shot by Besson (who handles camera operation) and DP Thierry Arbogast to maximize the scruffy-nymphet qualities Besson seems to favor in his female leads, does a good job melding certain Sil and Nikita qualities, although the mix is hardly as existential as either of those previous female protagonists. More important to the success of "The Fifth Element" than any performer, however, is Serra. His "La Femme Nikita" score is memorable in its own right; on the other hand, his horrible work for "GoldenEye" was (actually, like much of this film) "Nikita" lite. Here, Serra's music--as always, rather like assembly-line machinery come to life after hours and riffing the night away--is so seamless, and so integral to the progression of each scene, that one could imagine the script and the score being written at the same time, with Besson and Serra toiling side by side, note after word, note after word. As for Besson, who co-scripts with Robert Mark Kamen ("A Walk in the Clouds"), the talented Frenchman here stripmines rather than excavates his usual concerns. Besson described the essence of Nikita as "black," and that seems to be his strong suit; in "The Fifth Element" the blackest he gets is beige. One can hope the next one comes from his dark side.    Starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Milla Jovovich and Chris Tucker. Directed by Luc Besson. Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. Produced by Patrice Ledoux. A Columbia release. SF. Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence, some sexuality and brief nudity. Running time: 125 min
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