Wasabi

on September 27, 2002 by Wade Major
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There has always been a dash of Asian chic in French action auteur Luc Besson's highly stylized visions, though only recently has he openly embraced Asian talent, settings and themes. This has yet to manifest itself in his work as a director, but as a producer/writer it has become an increasingly prevalent fixation, as seen in such efforts as "Yamakasi," the Jet Li vehicle "Kiss of the Dragon" and "The Transporter," directed by longtime Jet Li collaborator Corey Yuen. None of these films, however, quite find the same endearingly offbeat balance as does "Wasabi," arguably the best script that Besson has written in years and a worthy directing follow-up for "Taxi 2" director Gerard Krawczyk (who has since gone on to direct "Taxi 3").

Comparisons to Besson's own "The Professional" (aka "Leon: The Professional") are inevitable as audiences are, once again, treated to a story featuring Jean Reno as the soft-hearted but deadly guardian of a young girl. Any further comparisons, however, are odious. This time out Reno is on the right side of the law (barely), a slug-happy Parisian cop named Hubert who always gets his man, even if it means leaving a sloppy trail of broken noses and bloodied bodies in his wake. If he seems less than gentle, it's because his heart remains in Tokyo where, as an employee of the French embassy some 19 years earlier, the love of his life, Miko, mysteriously vanished without so much as a goodbye.

That's when he gets the phone call--Miko has died and made him her executor and heir. Grief-stricken, Hubert returns to Japan to settle affairs, only to discover that Miko has also given him charge of a daughter named Yumi (Ryoko Hirosue). Her daughter. His daughter.

Notwithstanding the initial shock of unexpected parenthood, the charge doesn't seem that difficult--to simply watch over the rambunctious 19-year-old pop culture junkie for just two days until her 20th birthday (legal adulthood in Japan). But traces of cyanide on Miko's body, a forged medical report, a $200 million inheritance and a platoon of standard-issue Asian baddies (black suits, sunglasses and machine-guns) on their tail seem to suggest that things aren't quite kosher sushi, and that the sensitive side of Hubert may have to take a back seat yet again.

As always, Reno is impeccable in every facet of the role, made even stronger here by the contributions of two stellar supporting players--the delightful Ryoko Hirosue as Yumi and "Taxi 2"'s hilarious Michel Muller as Momo, Hubert's former Tokyo sidekick with whom he is reunited for this new set of adventures. But "Wasabi" is more than simply a successful assemblage of talent--it's an organic whole in which story, concept and artistry all work in blissful, eccentric harmony. It's refreshingly and unapologetically peculiar--Besson and Krawczyk aren't afraid to veer from broad slapstick to high-octane action to melodrama and back again. Whatever emotional signature suits the film at any given time is boldly applied, even if the swings in tone violate what audiences might normally expect or accept. In the end, this makes "Wasabi" all but impossible to categorize, but also nearly impossible to dislike. It's touching, exhilarating and endlessly fascinating. Starring Jean Reno, Michel Muller, Ryoko Hirosue, Carole Bouquet and Yoshi Oida. Directed by GĂ©rard Krawczyck. Written and produced by Luc Besson. A TriStar release. Comedy/Action/Drama. French-language; subtitled. Rated R for some violence. Running time: 94 min.

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