Remember the opening chase sequence from Casino Royale? Replace James bond with a half-dozen thugs and Bond’s prey with a nine-year old girl and you have a pretty good idea of the intensity level at which Colombiana begins. The Olivier Megaton-directed Luc Besson production maintains that intensity for almost two hours.
In the dog days of summer, theaters are usually filled with marginal movies – among them the occasional rote revenge thriller. Colombiana doesn’t really do anything amazingly different, but it does have Zoe Saldana and Amandla Stenberg and that makes a world of difference.
A Colombian drug lord has her parents killed in front of young Cataleya [Amandla Stenberg] but she manages to escape her parents’ fate with a well-placed knife and some unbelievable parkour skills. She delivers a flash drive –which she had swallowed – to the American embassy, where she vomits it up in front of an appalled embassy worker.
The data on the drive gets her to America, where she tells her uncle [Cliff Curtis] that she wants to be a killer. When she resists going to school, he gives her an abrupt, violent lesson on how school well benefit her as a killer-in-training.
Fifteen years later, the grown Cataleya pulls off an intricately planned hit inside a jail – drawing the attention of the determined FBI Agent Ross [Lennie James]. The unique circumstances of the kill – a drawing on the dead man’s chest – is eventually discovered to be a catteleya, an orchid native to southern Colombia.
The jail hit – and several increasingly complex hits to follow – are all tied to the men who ordered Cataleya’s family killed. [Surprise! Well, not really…]
Ross’ efforts to find Cataleya’s ultimate target are frustrated by a smarmy CIA Agent named Richard [Callum Blue] who actually seems to take delight in thwarting Ross – until a completely unexpected scene to close the second act. The third act is, essentially WWIII for Cataleya’s targets.
Despite being, ostensibly, just another Besson revenge flick with a strong female lead, Colombiana gains a great deal from Stenberg and Saldana. Stenberg gives a performance that is so completely intense – so completely in the moment – that she seems like a force of nature and Saldana picks up that intensity and drive and ramps it up even further.
There are moments when we see Cataleya’s personal life – her romance with an artist named Danny [Michael Vartan, lending an unexpected layer to the film], for example – that allow us to see her as both a person and that unyielding force of nature.
I think it was Alfred Hitchcock who said that if you show a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third. With all the guns, knives and grenades that see action in the movie from its earliest moments, it’s hard to believe that there would be anything that could be used in that Hitchcockian manner, but there is. To say anything more would just be wrong.
Megaton may not be the most subtle of directors, but he knows how to set up great action sequences. He may borrow from Peckinpah and Woo [among others], but he always manages to put an extra spin on his action sequences and in Colombiana, he gives Saldana sequences that make it hard to believe that she won’t be a huge action star if she wants to be.
Romain Lacourbas’ cinematography is another major factor in Colombiana’s being a little more than just another revenge flick. He frames the favela-like slums of Colombiana’s home in ways that make them as interesting as the most elaborate mansions. His camera also makes the lithe Saldana both sexier and harder than we’ve ever seen her. There’s a fight sequence in a bathroom that should reminds of the Bourne films, but still maintains a unique energy.
One of the most difficult things in movies is to make a killer relatable, even if that killer is seeking revenge on characters are truly evil. Between Megaton’s ability to take action in unique directions, Lacourbas’ frequently startlingly beautiful cinematography and the intensity [and vulnerability] of Saldana and Stenberg, Colombiana does just that.
Final Grade: B+
Photos by Magali Bragard and Carlolos Somonte/Courtesy Sony