November 6, 2013

Movie Review: The Fifth Element (1997)

“I hate warriors, too narrow-minded. I'll tell you what I do like though: a killer, a dyed-in-the-wool killer. Cold blooded, clean, methodical and thorough. Now a real killer, when he picked up the ZF-1, would've immediately asked about the little red button on the bottom of the gun.” – Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman)

Director: Luc Besson

Writers: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

Producers: Patrice Ledoux, Iain Smith and John A. Amicarella

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Major Stars: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Tommy “Tiny” Lister

When people discuss good sci-fi films of the past 15-20 years or so, it seems (to me, anyway) that people tend to deride or ignore The Fifth Element. I was one of those people once. Likely because when I first saw it back in 1997, I was a little…altered, and I thought it seemed ridiculous. Upon watching it again and again, I was way off; this is a solid, fun action/sci-fi film.

If you aren’t familiar with the film, the plot is pretty simple. Every 5,000 years the Great Evil visits the Earth. It must be repelled by a perfect warrior that releases the Divine Light. That can only be done by arranging and activating four stones representing the four elements (earth, fire, air, water) at a temple in Egypt, with the warrior (The Fifth Element) in the middle of the stones.

In 1914, aliens known as Mondoshawans remove the stones because of the advent of WW1. They promise to return the stones in 300 years, when the evil is supposed to return. 300 years later they do return, only to get blown out of space by mercenary shape-changing warriors known as Mangalores. They’ve been hired by Emmanuel Zorg (Oldman) to retrieve the stones. Of course, it isn’t that easy.

Recovered from the wreckage by the government are a few cells that are reconstituted into the perfect warrior. It’s Leeloo (Jovovich). She escapes the medical facility In New York City and literally falls into a flying cab driven by ex-Special Forces Major Korben Dallas (Willis). He gets wrapped up in the quest for the stones and getting them and Leeloo to the temple before the Great Evil, which has finally re-appeared, can destroy the Earth.

That rough outline doesn’t do justice to the film, which has lots of action and humor throughout. A scene where Dallas disarms a mugger outside his apartment is funny as hell, there’s a great flying car chase through New York, and the last 20-30 minutes of the film is pretty much a well-choreographed, kick-ass firefight between the Mangalores and Leeloo/Dallas on-board a space-liner where the stones are located. Very rarely does the film lag, with humor driving the story along when the action slows.

The casting is great as well. Not only in the major roles, but the smaller ones as well. Ian Holm is great as the flustered priest Vito Cornelius, whose sect has protected the secret of the Fifth Element for hundreds of years. Chris Tucker plays an over-the-top media icon known as Ruby Rhod, who escorts Dallas around the space-liner. Tucker’s manic delivery fits the character perfectly. And Brion James, a perpetual “That Guy” actor (Leon in Blade Runner, Ben Kehoe in 48 Hours) is solid as General Munro, Dallas’ former commanding officer who ropes him into retrieving the stones. And Tiny Lister as the President was inspired.

The music is cool as well. It’s has a Middle-Eastern flavor to it that works well. And there is a opera-techno fusion piece towards the end that is really nice.

But what blew me away were the scenery and the costumes. Those were courtesy of Jean Giraud, Jean-Claude Mézières (scenery) and designer Jean-Paul Gaultier (costumes). I have never seen a film that had, or has, as unique a look as The Fifth Element. The look of New York in the 23rd Century is vibrant and gritty, alive and chaotic. The police have these futuristic suits of armor that look utterly foreign (as in “nothing I am familiar with”, not “Euro”) but are completely functional. Everyone in the film wears some sort of uniform or suit or dress that is not only unique to the film, but is utterly perfect with the world created by the film. That is one of the grand achievements of The Fifth Element; a completely realized, believable world where Mangalores, flying cabs, crazy cop outfits and space-liners all fit together seamlessly.

If there is one drawback it is that some of the special effects look dated, even for 1997. In particular I am talking about the initial Mangalore attack on the Mondoshawan spaceship. In a film where the visuals really popped, this part of the film lacked quality.

So where to put The Fifth Element is the question. I think on the current list it slots in quite nicely between Serenity and Outland. This is a better film than Outland, hands-down. But Serenity’s world is even more remarkable, and the special-effects are much better overall.

Definitely catch The Fifth Element when you get a chance. It is a fun film to watch and the scenery/costumes are just amazing. It's on television on a semi-regular basis, usually in a weekend rotation. Or spring the 12-16 bucks for the DVD. It's worth owning.


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