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The Fifth Element (1997)

05/23/2011 1 comment

What do you get when a teenaged art student writes a sci fi film?? What do you get when a French director noted for his contributions to the cinema du look style direct it? What do you get when they’re both the same person? You get this.

The Fifth Element is a Friench sci fi film co-written and directed by Luc Besson, starring Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, and Chris Tucker.

In 1914, when planet Earth is on the verge of World War I, an alien race called the Mondoshawan arrives at an ancient Engyptian tomb to retrieve a weapon capable of fighting a Great Evil that appears every five thousand years: four stones representing the four classical elements, plus a fifth element that can unite the other four. They promise to return when the Great Evil returns, presenting a key to be kept safe until then. Fast forward 349 years. Planet Earth is now a bustling, futuristic, visual cacophany, and the Great Evil is drawing closer, eating a Federated Army starship. The Mondoshawans attempt to return to Earth with their anti-evil weapon, but their ship is ambushed and destroyed by Mandalores, a race of shapeshifting mercenaries hired by one Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg. In the remains of the Mondoshawan ship, Earth’s scientists find a sample of astonishingly complex genetic material, and reconstitute it into a supreme being named Leeloo, who escapes and winds up in the company of Korben Dallas, an ex-Army Major with the Federated Army Special Forces turned cab driver. After the situation is explained to him, Dallas is ordered to recover the stones from their current holder, an opera singer. Dallas isn’t so sure about the saving-the-world thing, but he thinks Leeloo is hot, so what the hell. And a very beautiful action movie ensues.

The first thing you will notice about this movie is its beauty. The Fifth Element is a definite treat for the eyes, giving you plenty to see as the story unfolds. The future Mr. Besson offers us is colorful and chaotic, from the costumes to the sets to the vehicles, with everything enhanced with CG just enough that the effects don’t get in the way. New York City of 2263 is just as busy as its modern counterpart, but in three dimensions – perfectly understandable in a setting with flying cars – leading to a unique twist on the car chase seldom seen in science fiction. The costumes are garish and exotic, offering a unique flavor to the setting without making the eyes bleed, though this is turned up until till the dial breaks with Chris Tucker’s near-brush with drag queen fashion as Ruby Rhod (incidentally, the costumes he wears during the Phlogiston scenes are not the most garish the costume designer had cranked out; those were shown to Tucker first to make the actual costumes seem tame by comparison). Pair the Technocolor palette with a handful of unique alien designs (without having the whole movie crawling with weird races), and The Fifth Element is a lot of fun to watch without even touching the story.

Fortunately, unlike some other pretty movies I’ve seen, the plot rises to meet the challenge and doesn’t drown in the spectacle, offering a unique take on the “saving the world” plot, set against the flashy backdrop of this colorful future. The action parts are about average for 90’s Bruce Willis, with gunfights, bad guys, car chases, and snarky one-liners tossed about. Dallas is delightfully deadpan about the whole thing: with his history in the Special Forces, absolutely nothing phases him about getting chased by cops after an alien woman falls into his cab from about five stories up, hostile Mandalores shooting at him while opera plays in the background, or even the impending destruction of Earth by a Big Ball of Hate. He assesses, he reacts, he powers through, and he goes about his business. One unusual point that I didn’t notice for a long time after I watched this movie for the first time, though: You have the hero, Korben Dallas. Fine. You have a human antagonist serving the Hateball, Zorg. These two people never meet. At all. They’re never in the same room with each other at any time in the movie. They never see each other. This seems like it wouldn’t work, until you realize that the movie isn’t about Dallas vs. Zorg, but rather Dallas vs. the Hateball. Zorg becomes an incidental pawn in the Hateball’s plans, and while he’s entertaining to watch, he’s only a part of the grand scheme for the annihilation of all life. Brilliant.

If you’re tired of the same old sci fi action movie with the same cookie-cutter settings and conventions, check out The Fifth Element. It’s sheer eye candy, backed by a solid plot that will entertain any sci fi fan.

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16 Blocks (2006)


Bruce Willis has long been the quintessential “cop” actor. From his role as John McLane in Die Hard, he has played a number of cops, police officials, and detectives over his long career, with great effectiveness. His more recent cop roles seem to be tending towards a little-explored facet of the cop role in recent movies: the tired cop. And in 16 Blocks, one tired cop has one simple mission. And it’s an escort mission. FUUUUUUUUUUUUUU~

16 Blocks is an action thriller film directed by Richard Donner and written by Richard Wenk. It stars Bruce Willis, Mos Def, and David Morse, and is shot in the “real time” narrative format.

Jack Moseley is a tired, burned-out, and rather hung over NYPD detective. After pulling an all-nighter, Jack is about to go home and crash for the day when his lieutenant gives him one last assignment. Jack doesn’t want the job; he just wants to get some rest – but his lieutenant has no one else on hand to take the job, so Jack is it. It sounds like a simple assignment: escort one guy sixteen blocks from jail to the courthouse to testify as a witness for the prosecution. He has to get there by 10. Simple, right? Well, if you discount the fact that a lot of people are going to try to kill this particular witness, and many of them are fellow cops, then yeah, it’s a simple mission… until it isn’t.

I wasn’t sure about this one when I got it from Netflix. The premise was so simple, it sounded like it was going to be sixteen blocks of shootouts, car chases, and flashy stunts. To my surprise, 16 Blocks is as much a character study as an action thriller. Rather than squeezing the aging Bruce Willis into a generic Cop mold (which he seldom fits, even when he creates the mold in question), they give him a past, a family, flaws, weaknesses, and regrets. He’s an alcoholic. He did some bad things in the past. And yet, he is still a noble character despite (or because of) all this. Likewise, Mos Def as Eddie Bunker is not a generic wisecracking con. Even though at the beginning he seems to be mainly channeling the Cat from Red Dwarf as he prattles on and on into Jack’s ear, he too has plans, hopes, and regrets, saving him from being nothing more than That Annoying Black Guy Bruce Has To Babysit. He, too, is a noble character, though he is rightfully afraid for his life for most of the movie, as he reveals his altruistic plans for the future. However, because so much of the story focuses on these two, David Morse’s role as antagonist Detective Frank Nugent is left a bit short. As the story unfolds we do learn the whys and wherefores of his character, but mostly he seems a bit generic, the figurehead and point of contact with what turns out to be a desperate conspiracy of silence.

Fortunately, the extensive character development combines well with the basic plot, turning what would otherwise have been a tired, generic story into something interesting. You learn to care about Jack and Eddie and their respective goals, rather than just sitting back and watching the chaos ensue. The action is subdued, just a relative handful of firefights and a fair number of foot-chase sequences as Jack focuses more on avoiding their pursuers (who could and would happily kill his charge) than confronting them with guns blazing (which could go all kinds of wrong for him). It is a tense game of cat and mouse that takes a step back into Die Hard territory – limited ammo, limited timeframe, limited resources. Their pursuers are tenacious and resourceful, keeping them on their toes and preventing them even the luxury of any real breathing room. Jack and Eddie must get away every time, while their foes only have to get to Eddie once and it’s all over.

While more subdued and less flashy than many contemporary action movies, 16 Blocks was still decently engaging. With three-dimensional characters and a decent setup, this movie would be worth a rental some night when you aren’t in the mood for car fu, gun fu, bomb fu, or over-the-top action-star pyrotechnics.

12 Monkeys (1995)


James Cole is almost sure he isn’t crazy. He might not be able to reconcile his memories and visions with his current surroundings, but he is almost sure he’s not crazy. The trouble is, if he is crazy, everything will be fine. If he’s not, 5 billion people are going to die, very soon.

12 Monkeys is a sci fi film directed by Terry Gilliam, inspired by the short film La jetée by Chris Marker. It stars Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Jon Seda, David Morse, and Christopher Plummer.

James Cole is a convict living in a future where humanity has been ravaged and forced underground by a deadly virus, believed to have been released by an extremist group called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. In order to earn a pardon, Cole is sent on a number of missions back through time in order to gather information of the virus and the Army of the Twelve Monkeys and if possible, to gather a pure sample of the virus so a cure may be engineered. However, his explanations about the virus and the grim future it causes are dismissed as the deranged ramblings of a schizophrenic, and he is sent to a mental institution. It soon appears that other “crazy” people might also be temporally displaced individuals like Cole himself on similar missions, and Cole desperately recruits his own psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly, for help in saving a future he is starting to believe might not exist…

Ah, Terry Gilliam. One of the founding members of the Monty Python troupe, Gilliam has gone on to direct some of the trippier movies in the spec fiction genre. Like Tim Burton, Gilliam’s movies tend to have a dark fairytale vibe to them, and 12 Monkeys is no exception. Messing with the viewer through the eyes of its protagonist, this movie explores themes like insane prophet vs. harbinger from the future, and whether the viewer can fully trust the POV character’s own observations, or if, as many of the 1996 characters believe, they are just delusions. The post-virus future is disorienting and trippy itself, to the point that it is logical for Cole to start believing it is only the product of an insane mind.

Of course, the film would fall flat without the superb acting of its principal cast. Bruce Willis (who worked for free just to get the chance to work with Gilliam) switches genres again, from action to drama, in effect playing an anti-badass here. Yes, he kicks ass when pressed, but most of the time he doubts himself, doubts his perceived mission, doubts his own perceptions of reality. Madeleine Stowe as Dr. Railly acts as his grounding force, trying to link him with the present even as she finds evidence that he might not be delusional, first fearing him but then wanting to help him find some sort of closure, either in fulfilling his mission or simply finding a place to be. Blurring the line between sanity and insanity is the inclusion of Brad Pitt as Jeffrey Goines (whose twitchy mannerisms were induced by simply taking away his cigarettes during filming), a genuinely(?) crazy character liked to the Army of the Twelve Monkeys whose own ramblings mirror Cole’s desperate attempts to warn the people about their impending near-extinction.

If you’re looking for a movie that messes with your head, you want to see Bruce Willis playing against type, or you’re just a fan of Terry Gilliam, check out this movie. It’s a delightful little Inception-lite puzzle that will hold your interest as you watch everything come full-circle.

Die Hard (1988)


New York City Police Detective John McLane wants to have a Merry Christmas. He’s travelled to Los Angeles to reconcile with his wife and generally enjoy a lovely office Christmas party there. Unfortunately, a group of international terrorists have other plans, but they’re about to learn a hard lesson: don’t mess with a New York cop’s Christmas.

Yippie-ki-yay.

Die Hard is an action film directed by John McTiernan, based on Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever. It stars Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, and Paul Gleason.

When John McLane arrives in Los Angeles, all he wants to do is relax and make things right with his wife Holly. However, while he’s in her office in Nakatomi Plaza, freshening up for her office Christmas party, a group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber take over the building, taking the other guests hostage, including Holly. McLane’s Spidey senses start tingling almost immediately, and he eludes Gruber’s henchmen as they search for any stragglers. Gruber presents his little band of merry men as working towards various extremist goals, but it is soon revealed that their goal is more local in origin. However, McLane isn’t going to stand for their shenanigans. He might be technically off-duty, but being a cop is in his blood, as Gruber & Co. learn as they find themselves matching wits with this unknown variable.

When this movie was first released, it was innovative for a number of reasons. First, John McLane was more or less an average guy. Yeah, he was a cop, and yeah, he took a lot of punishment, but he got injured. He got tired. Second, up till this point, Bruce Willis had been known as a comedic actor, and the switch to action raised a lot of eyebrows. Fortunately, he took well to the role, offering wisecracks as half the people in the building were trying to hunt him down, in sharp contrast to Rickman’s wily Hans Gruber, who is all business and comes to hate this particular monkey wrench with the burning intensity of a thousand desert suns. McLane is resourceful and crafty in addition to being a trained bruiser; the ability to solve problems with his brains rather than shooting everything to pieces is a skill that not many modern action heroes possess. The other terrorists appeared to only be there to add more menace to McLane’s plight, but Holly Gennaro-McLane had a number of scenes that indicated that either she and her husband were made for each other, or someof his attitude had rubbed off on her.

The plot was well-crafted as well. While Die Hard established a template since used by a number of action movies throughout the 80s and 90s, here it is chock full of twists and turns that keep even seasoned action fans on the edge of their seats, as McLane makes his way through friendly territory turned enemy territory, trying to stay one step ahead of the bad guys who would just as happily kill him as kill any of the hostages, if it would remove more more obstacle from their plan. It’s a simple plot, yes, but a delightfully twisty one.

If you want to see the movie that kicked off Bruce Willis’ long, well-earned journey into badasshood, pick up Die Hard. It’s the movie that kicked off a hundred “Die Hard on Whatever” plots, and it remains the best out of all of them.

RED (2010)


In a world filled with aging action stars from the 80s, where uncommon men are menaced by uncommon dangers, one man will have the courage to stand up for his right to peacefully co-exist with his average suburban neighbors, to quietly draw his pension and not have people trying to kill him at every turn. That man… is Bruce Willis. And somebody just pissed him off.

RED is an action comedy film loosely inspired by the three-issue comics miniseries of the same name created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner. It stars Bruce “Die Hard” Willis, Morgan “The Shawshank Redemption” Freeman, Mary-Louis “Boys on the Side” Parker, John “Con Air” Malkovich, Helen “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” Mirren, and Karl “The Bourne Supremacy” Urban.

Frank Moses (Willis) wants nothing more than to live peacefully in retirement, but he has grown lonely. To remedy this, he calls up Sarah (Parker), a customer service representative working at the office in Kansas City that handles his pension, using the conceit that his check is late but actually tearing up the first one that comes each month. However, his previous life as a black ops CIA agent soon comes back to bite him when a hit squad shows up and tries to kill him, shooting the hell out of the front of his house in the process, but managing to completely miss Frank. At least it wasn’t for lack of effort. Frank is aging but still sharp, and he kills the hit squad. How? He’s GODDAMN BRUCE WILLIS, that’s how. Realizing that whoever sent them likely tapped his phone, he goes to Kansas City to kidnap protect Sarah, dragging her along as he rounds up his old black ops team, likewise pseudo-retired, to find out who would want to kill him and why, journeying into Frank’s shadowy past and that of the people he used to work with. In the meantime, CIA agent William Cooper (Urban) has also been assigned to hunt down and kill Moses, apparently not aware of what happened to the other eleven guys. Action, explosions, and Bruce Willis kicking ass ensue.

I had never heard of this movie before I watched it, but I recognized many of the stars and decided to give it a shot, figuring it would at least be a good popcorn movie. Within the first twenty minutes, I was pleasantly surprised. This tongue-in-cheeck action-comedy is delightfully over-the-top with its action sequences, stunts, car chases, and batting about of action movie conventions, conspiracy theories, and espionage story elements. You get things like a conspiracy theorist who turns out to be right 90% of the time and lives in a car trunk that actually leads down to an elaborate underground base, a retired badass with advanced liver cancer that gets his jollies making the shapely caretaker at his retirement home adjust the rabbit ear antennae on his TV, plots within plots within double-crosses, minor background characters suddenly trying to kill the heroes, and shit getting blown up just to have shit blow up.

Bruce Willis as Moses is casually deadpan about how he handles things, like stepping out of a car that’s just been sent into a spin by being rammed by an SUV – while it’s still spinning – and using his fists and his wits to beat the everloving HELL out of countless mooks. I’d seen elements of this during Live Free or Die Hard, but here he’s distilled down to pure badassery. John Malkovich as the prescient but off-kilter Boggs is the sort of paranoid gun nut that would have Burt Gummer telling him to get off decaf, and Helen Mirren as Victoria is an entertaining paradox: a soft-spoken British woman who will save your bacon by throwing a hunting knife into someone’s throat while at the controls of a tripod-mounted Gatlin gun, and then invite you back to her place for tea and cookies, and that cut looks like it might need stitches, let me take care of that for you, dear.

So. Action. Comedy. Conspiracies. Explosions. Fight scenes. If you like your movies big and manly, the sort that don’t take themselves too seriously, I highly recommend RED. It’s a surprisingly smart little action-comedy that will leave you cheering for more.