Friday, August 26, 2011

Choosing To Be Bad: Columbiana Bores Us At The End Of Summer Blockbuster Season.

The Good: One or two lines of dialogue, Zoe Saldana's acting is fine.
The Bad: Boring, No empathetic characters, Plot is so incredibly predictable as to be unwatchable, PG-13.
The Basics: Columbiana is such a typical revenge action-adventure story that it leaves the viewer feeling jaded because it is so unoriginal.

We have officially entered the August/September cinematic doldrums and with the release of Columbiana it is easy to see why. Every now and then, when August - the dumping ground for all of the movies that couldn't compete at the outset of Summer Blockbuster Season - comes, there is a movie that makes me wonder why the film was held back. With Columbiana I did not wonder for a moment. In addition to only having three actors whose names I recognized - Zoe Saldana, Callum Blue, and Michael Vartan - I went into Columbiana having seen none of the trailers, reading nothing about it and having seen nothing else by director Olivier Megaton.

Ironically, all I had seen of Columbiana before watching the movie was a still of Zoe Saldana's character with a rocket launcher which, ironically, does not appear in the film. I suspect, given when the rocket launcher comes up, that showing her shooting it was a moment too much to keep the film PG-13 and that is the first complaint I'll detail with Columbiana. Columbiana is barely PG-13 with heavy violence and an astonishing number of times Zoe Saldana gets undressed without actually showing her breasts. The thing is, Columbiana is so violent and cut so awkwardly that there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it was edited to get it down to PG-13 and I can only suspect that was because on some level Megaton realized that only a 13 year old would find Columbiana fresh, interesting or new.

It is not. Columbiana is like Payback (reviewed here), without the sense of whimsy or The Usual Suspects without the sense of character. In fact, the list of movies Columbiana reminded me of could keep going on, except that whatever examples I could come up with, the common thread would be that those movies were interesting. Unfortunately, Columbiana was not and I am sure that when the "unrated" DVD version is released, it won't be any more interesting or better, it will just have more graphic murders in it.

In Columbia in 1992, Fabio is getting out of the organized crime family run by Don Luis. Smart enough to realize that Marco, his mentor in the organization, is not going to just let him go, Fabio rushes home and tries to get his wife and daughter out of the house. Unfortunately, he is too late and Marco and his men descend upon the house. Marco kills Fabio and his wife and asks the quiet girl, Cataleya, for an object he is certain she has. She does have it, but instead of giving it to him, she flees, makes it to the U.S. Embassy and is extradited to the United States. There, she finds her way to her Uncle Emilio where she is set up to have a somewhat normal life. Instead, she insists upon becoming a killer and Emilio obliges her.

Fifteen years later in California, a drunk woman crashes into a police car. She is booked at the local station which just happens to be where an important prisoner is being held for the night by the U.S. Marshals. Only, the woman isn't random and her presence there is not random; it's Cataleya and she manages to get through the prison to kill the prisoner, marking him with her trademark lipstick signature, the orchid her name is based upon. Shortly after this unauthorized mission, she goes on a kill for Emilio and has a rendezvous with her artist lover. But after twenty-three murders with her signature, the FBI has had enough and they release pictures to the press, alerting Marco and Don Luis, who are now in CIA protective custody in the U.S. to the threat Cataleya represents to them.

Columbiana is bad. Sometimes, the analysis ought to be as simple as that. The movie starts in the harsh yellow light of Columbia and Fabio's exit from the mob is so contrived as to seem scripted. The only thing that feels fresh in the first act is the fact that he is smart enough to realize everyone he cares about is about to die. Unfortunately, after this insightful character moment, the movie degenerates into five minutes - it felt like fifteen - of parkour and Honda motorbike advertisements. Olivier Megaton illustrates the whole process of Cataleya going from Columbia to Chicago and that is something slightly different from other, similar, films, but it is no more interesting.

What works throughout the film is the occasional line of dialog. Not all of the writing is great, like the tribute to the conceit early on in the film with Fabio wearing a white shirt (so we know pretty much right away he's going to get shot), but some of the dialogue actually manages to feel fresh. Luis Besson and Robert Mark Kamen seem to actually enjoy writing lines like "I want to be a killer" (young Cataleya) "Okay" (Emilio). The writers also have a pretty decent sense of time, with references to Xena: Warrior Princess making 1992 seem like 1992. There is a somewhat quirky sense to some of the lines - about one every half hour - and the movie has a few moments where the sensibilities are fairly smart. Emilio pointing out that "A tag killer is stupid" is one of the smarter observations in this genre.

Unfortunately, it does not phase Cataleya. Nothing seems to. Cataleya is always one step ahead, but because she chooses the life she gets, it is impossible to have empathy for her. In fact, Cataleya is usually several steps ahead, but again, she chooses to be a killer and this is a revenge movie, so it is not surprising. The first time we see Zoe Saldana's incarnation of Cataleya, it is obvious to anyone seasoned in the genre that she is in control. She has a plan, none of it is coincidence. The whole thing feels so choreographed that one is surprised that FBI Special Agent Ross takes so long to believe a woman could be responsible for the killing inside the prison. But the fact that moments after Cataleya is incarcerated, the mark shows up pretty much makes a blinding arrow to insist viewers connect the dots.

Similarly, the moment Michael Vartan's Danny enters the narrative, it is obvious that he is there to be Cataleya's love object and while Megaton does not keep us waiting long, the PG-13 nature of the film is especially dull in the love story between Danny and Cataleya. In fact, the elements of that subplot seem like the most obvious form of counterbalance. There is a moment when the two are in bed that is clearly intended to humanize Cataleya, but instead it just feels like it is supposed to be that type of moment - i.e. it never becomes the actual moment, it is always supposed to be that moment and Cataleya is never humanized.

As for the acting, "meh" is the best judgment I am going to muster up tonight. Zoe Saldana burst onto the big screen and collective conscious for the masses with Star Trek (reviewed here!) a few years back and she hasn't stopped rocking it since. In Columbiana, she is convincing, but one has to wonder if she really cares to make a specific statement or if she's just happy to make any statement. In Columbiana, Saldana's Cataleya comes across not only as focused and determined, but mechanized. She does not seem particularly hurt and instead, Saldana seems to be sleepwalking through the motions of most of her scenes. That only further diminishes the level of interest in the movie; that the star seems bored in many of her scenes sucks the life out of them.

Finally, because my eyes lit up when I saw Michael Vartan in the cast, I feel it is worth mentioning this: the action-adventure sequences are not all that they could be. Without spoiling anything, the climactic battle is nothing for fans of the genre. In fact, the second season finale of Alias (which Vartan was an integral part of) had a fight that puts the climactic hand-to-hand battle in Columbiana to shame. Part of the significant difference: for the Alias episode, the battle was frenetic, fast and the key moments were shown with lethal precision. In Columbiana, when the fight gets stale or choreographed, Megaton just shakes the camera more until the camerawork begins to look like it is being done by an individual who is having a seizure. This doesn't make it better or more interesting, it just makes it more movementy*.

Sadly, that is the epitaph of Columbiana: it is not better or more interesting than any other revenge story or action adventure film. It's just here now and that's hardly a reason to see it.

For other revenge films, please check out my reviews of:
X-Men First Class
Hannibal Rising


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page on the subject by clicking here!

* I know this is not a real word.

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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