Friday, September 9, 2011

Latin Fever

Sometimes you see a trailer so flawed, so flush with derivative story and character, awash in wanton violence and sexual innuendo, that you can tell it is not a film worth spending your time or money on. 90% of the time that is true. On the other hand, sometimes you see a trailer with those same qualities, and despite knowing that the movie will have its issues, you still can't wait for it to come out in theaters so you can catch it yourself. That tangible difference between them may be slight, but for some reason most titles in that vein are nigh unwatchable, while Colombiana intrigued me to the point where I couldn't see myself NOT watching it. As if featuring a kick-ass Zoe Saldana in a role similar to La Femme Nikita was not enough, the film was produced by Luc Besson, who if nothing else knows how to make interesting looking movies. Colombiana caught a lot of flak for its portrayal of a lawless Colombia and the organized crime that infests it, but none of that had any bearing on my wanting to see it. If anything, it was Saldana who is guilty of that, as the star has taken her career to another level the past few years with starring turns in Star Trek, Avatar, and even last year's The Losers even if not enough people watched it. She was the primary (if not only) reason to see Colombiana in the theaters, as achieving a leading role is an even bigger step forward than this particular talent has taken so far.

First rule for dating Zoe: Don't get on her bad side
After her parents are murdered by Colombian drug lord Don Luis (Benito Benites) and his right hand man Marco (Jordi Molla) at nine years of age, Cataleya (Saldana) escapes to America where her uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) takes her in and eventually trains her to become a lethal assassin. Twenty years later, Cataleya is one of the world's deadliest women, and her attention has shifted to flushing out the men responsible for taking her family away, while balancing that with the facade of a "normal" life and her romantic involvement with artist Danny (Michael Vartan). Soon, the FBI, CIA and Don Luis are all after Cataleya, and she must use every weapon in her arsenal just to survive, if not escape her life completely.

Some people take peeping into toilets to a whole other level
As you can tell by the actors I mentioned above, there's hardly anyone of note beyond Saldana in the cast notes. While several of them are indeed talented performers and character actors, only Saldana could be considered a star, not surprising considering the heavy Latin American casting needed to make this film. It's only recently that Latin American performers have been successful in more mainstream roles, as in the past they've had to settle small, stereotypical parts or "genre" flicks with no widespread appeal. Michael Pena is one actor who has vaulted that barrier, as is Saldana, who is captivating in every scene she enters in Colombiana. Since that's almost the entire film, she had to be on for every moment, and she emotes sexuality, intensity and intelligence perfectly. She had some help from the filmmakers, as one scene with her sucking on a lollypop while performing maintenance on a firearm elegantly captures the dichotomy of her innocent childhood with her murderous adult life, but it is mostly her ability to become this dangerous character that makes her so valuable to the film in question. Running a close second is British actor Lennie James, the guy we all wanted to see more of after the series premiere of The Walking Dead. As an FBI agent tracking Cataleya's murders, James is a good alternate to leading the scenes which Saldana herself can't be part of. Cliff Curtis is also solid as Cataleya's uncle, a professional hitman who at times regrets introducing her to this life. Curtis has put up good performances in recent films Push and Sunshine, and I always like seeing him on the big screen. Michael Vartan thankfully doesn't have as much of an impact on the story as he could have; he's fine as an actor but the romance angle was overcooked from the start and predictable in its execution. Molla and Benites are campy villains, more dangerous in their off-screen doings than in anything we actually see ourselves. Most impressive on the cast might be Amandla Stenberg, who plays the young Cataleya. While I thought the opening featuring her was a bit overlong, Stenberg impressed me greatly with her ability and her character's inner strength. Easily the surprise of the entire film.

The most kick-ass girl in cinema right now
Unfortunately, there are far too few surprises in Colombiana. Despite the great acting involved, it barely makes up for the overused femme fatale construct that wrote the screenplay and made the film what it is. While the action sequences are indeed exciting thanks to director Olivier Megaton (which sounds like a rejected Transformers character), they are incredibly one-sided, and never do we believe that anything besides Cataleya's victory is possible. Besides transporting La Femme Nikita to Colombia and the US, and making the heroine of Latin descent, there is little to differentiate between Cataleya and her hit-woman predecessors. Sure, it's great that she is a strong woman from the start and wanted to grow up to be Xena, Warrior Princess, but as she develops her sociopathic tendencies one has to wonder that this is the person we're rooting for. Then again, this is the same woman who prances around in skintight catsuits with heavy weaponry, and upon doing so our self-reflective insights are lost to other imagery.

She does construction too? That is so hot.
Still, despite Colombiana's obvious issues with itself, Saldana and cast manage to create an enjoyable, thrilling and sometimes funny film out of the rendered husks of Femme Fatales past. You might want to wait on a rental, as it's only barely worth a full-priced ticket, but Cataleya is one of the few female action heroes in a world where 2010's Salt was a big deal sociologically despite being at best an okay movie. It's a shame Colombiana hasn't garnered as much attention as that Angelina Jolie piece did, but I still found myself entertained, as did a surprisingly full theater a week after it was released. If anyone deserves stardom, it's Saldana, and I can only hope that if she fails to reach that highest tier it is not the color of her skin that deprives her of it.

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