Tuesday, August 30, 2011


French writer, producer, and director Luc Besson reinvented the killer chick flick genre back in 1990 with his stylist shoot’em up “La Femme Nikita.” Before “La Femme Nikita” illuminated screens, the best killer chick flicks came from a variety of directors, actresses, and genres. Low-budget, indie director Ted V. Mikels helmed “The Doll Squad” (1973) and “Ten Violent Women” (1982). African-American actress Pam Grier empowered women in such B-movie classics as “Big Doll House” (1971), “Coffy” (1973), “Foxy Brown” (1974), and “Friday Foster” (1975). In 1973, future Nancy Reagan astrologer Joyce Jillson starred in “Super Chick” as an airline attendant named Tara B. True who held a black belt in karate and thwarted a jet hijacking. Another African-American actress Tamara Dobson headlined “Cleopatra Jones” (1973) and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold” (1975). Most of these movies drew their inspiration from Asian actioneers where women wielded lethal weapons without a qualm, like “Female Demon Ohyaku” (1968), “Okatsu the Fugitive” (1969), “Quick-draw Okatsu” (1969), “Blind Woman's Curse” (1970) and “Lady Snowblood” (1971). At the same time, the Japanese produced the “Zero Woman” cycle of shoot’em ups in the Pinky Violence Collection featuring: “Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless To Confess” (1971) “Girl Boss Guerilla” (1972) , “Criminal Woman: Killing Melody” (1973), and "Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom" (1973). Before these Asian costume thrillers and the occasional American crime melodrama, like "The Violent Years," only denim-clad dames in horse opera such as “Johnny Guitar” (1954), “Two-Gun Lady” (1955), “Gunslinger” (1956), and “Forty Guns” (1957) were allowed to shoot and kill if the occasion required.

“La Femme Nikita” propelled the genre into the 1990s, but focused primarily on contemporary professional women armed to the hilt with modern firepower. Not-surprisingly, clones proliferated: “Tank Girl” (1995), “Cherry” (2000), “The Silencer” (2000), and “Thelma and Louise (1991). In “La Femme Nikita,” the eponymous anti-heroine was a convicted dame slated for execution who received a second chance at life if she performed executions for the government. Besson’s charismatic thriller starred newcomer Anne Parillaud and spawned a Hollywood remake, “Point of No Return” with Bridget Fonda as well as a Hong Kong version in director Stephen Shin's “Black Cat” (1991) and its sequel "Black Cat 2" (1997) with Jade Leung. Later, Besson made “The Professional” (1994) where an expert hit man, Jean Reno, taught a young girl, Natalie Portman, to how to kill the dastards who had murdered her parents. A cable television series “La Femme Nikita” with Peta Wilson followed; it aired from 1997 to 2001. In 2010, another version of “La Femme Nikita” hit the small screen with Maggie Q cast in “Nikita.”

Cleverly, Besson has recycled some of the best scenes from both “La Femme Nikita” and “The Professional” to make “Colombiana” (***1/2 out of ****), starring Zoe Saldana of "Avatar" as a sympathetic but indestructible female assassin. As one thug warns his companions, when Colombiana materializes, it is too late to take action and survive. Make no mistake; the filmmakers treat the theme of female empowerment in this seasoned but Spartan saga with few surprises but a surplus of sizzle. If you’ve seen either “La Femme Nikita” and/or “The Professional,” you can spot the inspiration for “Colombiana.” An early scene in “La Femme Nikita” depicts the heroine plunging a pencil into a policeman’s hand. Similarly, an early scene in “Colombiana” shows our young heroine stabbing a scumbag villain and pinning his hand to a table while she makes good her escape. No matter how derivative this suspenseful, high-octane, white-knuckled epic is, “Transporter 3” director Olivier Megaton compensates with picturesque staging, a cast with provocative faces, and atmospheric locales. "Colombiana" is grueling, gritty, with a lot of get-up-and-go.

Initially, “Colombiana” opens in Bogotá, Columbia, 1992. Ten-year old Cataleya Restrepo (newcomer Amanda Stenberg) watches as the henchmen of a Colombian crime cartel murder her mother and father. It seems that her father tries to retire from the syndicate. Treacherous Don Luis (Beto Benites of "Hermano") allows him to leave his heavily-guarded premises before he issues a contract. Luis’ right-hand man, Marco (Jordi Molla of “Blow”), tries to capture Cataleya because she possesses a microchip crammed with incriminating evidence that her father gave her as a bargaining chip for a passport. Cataleya's father tells her that the microchip is her passport to America. The agile girl leads the slimy Marco and his machine-gun toting mob on an adrenaline-laced foot chase through Bogotá. When she isn't scaling buildings, Cataleya crashes through flimsy roof-tops and recovers in the nick of time. Ultimately, she scrambles away from Marco and his army by diving into an underground sewer. The elusive Cataleya enters the United States, cuts a deal with the U.S. authorities, and hands them all the information on the Luis’ gang. Not long afterward, she escapes from U.S. authorities and catches a bus for Chicago, Illinois, to see her Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis of “Training Day”) explore revenge as an option. When she meets Emilio, Cataleya confides in him that she once wanted to be a warrior princess like the TV heroine Xena. Now, she wants only to be a killer.

A criminal himself, Emilio lets the young girl sleep in his late son’s room. He trains her to be a contract assassin. In one great scene, Emilio explains that even contract assassins—if they plan to survive more than five years—must attend public school. Emilio assures her that he can make a top-notch assassin out of her, but she has got to have the intelligence level of a high school graduate. Besson and "Transporter" co-scripter Robert Mark Kamen fast-forward the plot 15 years later. Cataleya has become a svelte killing machine who loves to dress in skimpy clothing. She has discovered to her chagrin that the CIA has taken Don Luis into protective custody. Besson and Kamen make sure that nobody is too easy for their heroine. Nevertheless, the Central Intelligence Agency allows Luis to continue his business as usual. Neither the CIA nor the FBI, however, can thwart Cataleya when she goes into action against them.

This PG-13 rated, 108-minute epic boils down to a episodic narrative with Cataleya icing one individual at a time until she works her way down to Marco. After she kills a victim, our heroine uses lipstick to sketch a native South American orchid called 'cattleya' on the corpse's chest to remind Don Luis that he is her prime target. Actually, Cataleya was named after this flower. The elaborate hit that our heroine carries out in a high security jail resembles the kind of far-fetched antics that occur in Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible" franchise. The way that Cataleya lands behind bar to terminate her prey is blunt and to the point. When Cataleya isn’t dodging Don Luis’ trigger-happy henchmen, she must keep a step ahead of a tenacious FBI agent, Ross (Lennie James of “The Next Three Days”) who believes that a man is responsible for the murder rampage. Cataleya lets her romantic relationship with an artist, Danny (Michael Vartan of “Alias”), interfere with her plans. Danny has no clue about her line of work, until he exposes her quite by accident to the villains. The scene where the FBI and a SWAT team surround Cataleya’s safe house generates considerable tension.

“Colombiana” qualifies as an outlandish, audacious exercise in suspense and tension that benefits from Zoe Saldana’s gravity-defying performance and helmer Olivier Megaton’s slam-bang action scenes.