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movie review: luc besson's "angel-a"

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de-VICE #1


Andrez Bergen / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

Dir: Luc Besson

Cast: Jamel Debbouze, Rie Rasmussen, Gilbert Melki, Serge Riaboukine

According to the movie reference Web site, French film maker Luc Besson has been involved in the production of 27 different TV and cinema titles. And that's just in the last 12 months.

His job descriptions vary - think producer, executive producer, associate producer, coproducer, extra-special-producer, and what not - but I think you get the gist.

It's likely that 90 percent of these flicks you'll never hear about, while the other 10 percent you'll wish you hadn't.

By contrast, in 1997 Besson produced just one film: Gary Oldman's exceptional (if harrowing) Nil By Mouth.

That year also boasted Besson's final successful directorial vehicle, The Fifth Element. It was cheeky, irreverent, and a rollicking roller-coaster ride.

The subliminal delusions of Bessonian grandeur - vaguely evident as much there as in his earlier movies like Leon (The Professional, 1994), Nikita (1990), and Subway (1985) - didn't explode into full force until he lobbed Jeanne d'Arc (Joan Of Arc) into the cinematic fray seven years ago. That film bombed, and he hasn't directed anything since.

Until now, that is.

All of which augurs ill, and conspires to paint a gloomy picture of what to expect from Angel-A, a flight of fancy filmed in black-and-white, in Besson's native language, around the picturesque tourist locales of Paris.

In fact, Paris should be listed in the credits as an integral member of the cast, or the film retitled The Bridges of Paris County. There are literally dozens of frames of famous Parisian bridges by longtime Besson collaborator Thierry Arbogast.

He may have shot classics back in the day like L'Appartement (The Apartment, 1996) for Gilles Mimouni - but more recently he helmed the camera on screen "gems" like Catwoman and Wing Commander. Yawn.

It's on a bridge that this particular story - Besson himself calls it a romantic comedy - unfurls.

Minor-league swindler Andre, who happens to owe money to every crook at every level in the Parisian criminal pecking order, is at the end of his tether - so he decides to skip repayment plans by doing le grand jump off a bridge.

In that moment Angela miraculously appears, bearing the same suicidal inclinations. Both somehow survive the waters of the Seine, an event as unlikely as their subsequent team-up, and Angela repairs the tatters of Andre's life - aided only by a limitless supply of self-lighting cigarettes, and a nod or two toward God.

Comedian Jamel Debbouze, who plays Andre, lacks the charisma and acting repertoire to hold down the central male role here; the supporting character he played in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie, as the grocer's assistant, may have had shorter screen time but was a lot more memorable.

The fact that the guy bears a spitting-image resemblance to American character actor Luis Guzman (Carlito's Way, Traffic) may be beside the point, but it's downright disturbing.

Rie Rasmussen, a Danish former model and short-film maker herself, better fulfills Besson's need for tall, gangly, tough-but-drop-dead-gorgeous girls, and stands literally head and shoulders above Debbouze.

She gives the character what seems her best shot, yet Angela remains disconcertingly underdeveloped. It's also obvious that Arbogast and his director are more concerned with their voyeuristic camera-play.

Besson does grant tantalizing moments that entertain aside from the mandatory glimpses of lithe, sexy legs - like Andre being dangled off the Eiffel Tower, and the twist on the club scene where he thinks he's inadvertently acting out the role of Angela's pimp - and the story actually borders on poignant for just a few seconds.

The rest of the time the pedestrian acting, the languid script, some clunky angel symbolism, an awkward sense of humor - and quite possibly Besson's long-absent directorial presence - deflates the movie's monochrome sail, and it's just plain dead in the water.

The movie is currently playing.
(May. 20, 2006)

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