Top Ten Luc Besson-Produced Films
With a new Taken film coming out tomorrow, I decided to put together a list of what I would consider the best Luc-Besson-produced films. For those unaware, Luc Besson is the French writer/director who is responsible for directing films such as Nikita, Leon, and The Fifth Element. He has also had his hand in writing and producing a lot of films, which led to the launch of Jason Statham as an international star, along with serving as a way for many young directors to get their start. I have joked in the past that Besson appears to write an idea down on a napkin now and again, hands it off to a protégé, and that becomes the next Besson B-movie. That said, there are now a number of Besson-produced films, so I figured why not rank them. This was a harder challenge that I anticipated, because as much as I enjoy Besson-directed films from the 90s and his most recent film Lucy, his work as a producer is pretty mixed, with almost as many films fit for a “Top Ten Worst” list. With all that said, let’s get to it. [Note: I never saw the original Taxi. Not the terrible American remake, the original, so I will not have that film on this list, but am open to hearing opinions on it.]
10. From Paris with Love – So we don’t get off to the greatest start here. Honestly, it was a tossup between this and Kiss of the Dragon, as far as simply finding one choice that could round out this list with ten films. Regardless, I do find there to be a little charm in From Paris with Love, mainly due to the wacked-out performance by a bald John Travolta. I honestly have very little memory of this film, beyond a couple neat action sequences (it helps that Pierre Morel, who will be featured on this list quite a bit, is easily Besson’s best protégé in terms of constructing action) and a sequence that could have showed us how crazy Travolta’s character is, only to back down and go for a more traditional angle. I assume there was a big bomb that needed to be stopped though, so that’s always fun…
9. Wasabi – I am happy to at least be able to mention Jean Reno in some way on a list all about Luc Besson. Yes, his best work is in films directed by Besson, but Wasabi was disposable fun, featuring the entertaining French actor as a cop who goes to Tokyo and becomes a guardian for a young Japanese girl. The plot is very standard stuff, but the fun comes from the fish-out-of-water stuff with Reno, who, yes, eats a lot of Wasabi, but also experiences some of the other fun times to be had in Tokyo, which includes playing a round of Dance Dance Revolution in an arcade. Another film I have very little memory of, but I do recall finding it fairly enjoyable.
8. The Transporter – Okay, so now the list really kicks off. Jason Statham was already building popularity in Guy Ritchie’s early films, along with some random genre movie roles (The One, Ghosts of Mars), but he was given his own starring vehicle quite literally with The Transporter, which also brought us director Louis Leterrier, who has gone on to do plenty of his own work since (The Incredible Hulk, Now You See Me). The first film is not the most inventive, but it does have a great opening car chase, a number of cool fights, a solid soundtrack (to make up for the very repetitive score), and a lot of Statham being a bad ass. I have seen this film a number of times, but I always remember heading out to see it with my friends in theaters back in 2002 and having a blast.
7. The Transporter 2 – I assume some may find this choice to be controversial. “The sequel!?” “Is it really better?!” I think so and it is because the movie is go-for-broke silly. There is a scene where Statham’s Frank Martin sees the reflection of a bomb under his car in a puddle of water and then races to a ramp, where he can then do a corkscrew that perfectly allows for a random hook to take the bomb off the car, right before it blows up. It is easily one of the craziest things Jason Statham has ever been involved with and I love it. The rest of the movie has a lot of the same silly fun as well, with campy performances, over-the-top dialogue, and a real clear choice to go bigger and broader in a lot of very fun ways. While I was disappointed with the third Transporter outing, this sequel found the series at its peak.
6. Unleashed – Also known as Danny the Dog, this is the third Louis Leterrier film in a row and my favorite of his Besson collaborations. Jet Li stars as a man essentially brought up as a dog on a leach. Bob Hoskins is a vicious loan shark who uses Jet Li’s Danny to attack people who don’t pay. Eventually, Danny escapes this life and meets up with Morgan Freeman and Kerry Condon, who teach him the power of love. Okay, so it’s not quite that cheesy, but the film does have a mix of great action scenes and a solid 40 minutes of character drama. It is generally well-acted from all involved, including Jet Li, who got a chance to really shine for reasons other than his martial arts skills (which he still easily excels at, when the time calls for it). A bonus is the score for this film, which was composed by Massive Attack, with some additional work by the RZA as well. Awesome.
5. Tell No One – Luc Besson must have been really enjoying some Hitchcock, when he decided to jump on board producing Ne le dis a personne, known in English as Tell No One. Based on an American novel, this mystery thriller finds a man getting caught up in a conspiracy that involves his wife, who was thought to have been dead for years. There are lots of twists and turns in a film that is much better to see than describe. Not necessarily the most creative in terms of plotting, given where we are now with a film like Gone Girl out there, but in terms of Hitchcockian suspense, with a modern sense of energetic thrills at times (see the excellent foot chase scene towards the middle of the film), Tell No One is a strong effort from director Guillaume Canet.
4. Taken – Yes, Taken is not the be-all, end-all for me. It is within the top five and I think it is a fine film (though still not the best Pierre Morel film on this list), just not my absolute favorite. Liam Neeson redefined his whole career with this film and that is certainly commendable, as the imposing actor makes a strong case as an action star simply by having a phone conversation, with plenty of actual action still to come later in the film. That in mind, this is a film that presents a crazy scenario for parents matched by the kind of revenge fantasy some may have, when it comes to getting their child back. The action is pretty fantastic and well shot (which I cannot say about the sequels), Neeson is a force to be reckoned with, and the whole thing really moves, once we get to Paris. I have often made fun of the opening of this film (i.e. CIA BBQ and Maggie Grace as a little girl, better viewed as Grace as a special needs child), but it only adds to the goofy fun that matches up to the much more serious matters that take place later. Still a fun film to revisit.
3. Space Jail AKA Lockout – This is the kind of pick that should remind people how “guilty pleasure” is not a term I subscribe to often. I am proud to like the movies I like and I have no shame in having a certain level of love for Lockout, which I easily prefer referring to as SPACE JAIL. This is a film that gets its own silliness and goes for it at every turn. From the ridiculously terrible-looking sci-fi motorcycle chase that opens the film to the parachuting out of space that closes this thing, it is certainly not the action that makes this movie work, but the style and the John Carpenter-esque vibe that runs throughout it. Guy Pearce does an amazing job of filling in for 80s Kurt Russell, as his character, the aptly named “Snow”, one-liners his way through a prison in space, where he has been sent to rescue the President’s Daughter (played by Maggie Grace, who returns to the world of Besson and is quite game to have fun as well). I love how this film moves between entertaining and dumb so easily, with various levels of silliness involving all the characters and logic peppered throughout. And yes, this movie easily has all the best jokes of any on this list.
2. District B13 – There was a time when parkour was really cool. I am not sure if it still is or when the peak was, but District B13 managed to actually to make a whole movie about parkour professionals kicking butt in a fun movie that once again seems very John Carpenter-esque in terms of plotting. Pierre Morel’s debut film and easily my favorite, we get a great opening action scene that quickly launches a film that cuts corners at every turn in an effort to make a super-fast-paced action flick, with a little bit of societal commentary, some charismatic main players, and a lot of very fun parkour/martial arts based action sequences. In a world where The Raid exists, I would still easily put District B13 just as close, as far as recent foreign action films that are a blast to watch, with many memorable scenes scattered throughout. I have seen this film a number of times and always love how to-the-point it is, with a level of attitude that easily matches the hyper-kinetic style.
1. The Three Burials of Melequiades Estrada – So my top pick is a far cry from everything else on this list, but it is better than all of them, so there you have it. Tommy Lee Jones terrific directorial debut is a neo-western of sorts that revolves around a man getting justice for a murdered friend of his by forcing a journey upon the man responsible. Tommy Lee Jones and Barry Pepper star as the duo involved, with strong support from actors including Dwight Yoakam and a pre-Mad Men January Jones. Scripted by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros), the film has a narrative structure that Jones was happy to embrace, showing him as a man who has some tricks up his sleeves to separate him from other older actors that simply know how to direct fairly efficiently (ahem, Eastwood). ‘Three Burials’ is a very strong effort from all involved and I while I was surprised at the time to see Besson as a producer on the film, it certainly made it easy to find a way to support one of the best films of 2005 for a list like this.
For reference, here are a few others that were not on this list. Most of these are pretty bad, but at least you can note a few other Besson-produced movies:
3 Days to Kill, Bandidas, Brick Mansions, Columbiana, District B13: Ultimatum, Hitman, The Homesman, Kiss of the Dragon, Taken 2, The Transporter 3
Two more action efforts from Luc Besson are coming to theaters this year and both are sequels. Well, one is a sequel and the other is a reboot of sorts. They are Tak3n and The Transporter Legacy. We’ll see how these go…