A film review by Craig J. Koban August 30, 2011

COLUMBIANA j
j
½

2011, PG-13, 107 mins.

Zoe Saldana (Cataleya), Michael Vartan (Danny Delanay), Lennie James (Ross), Cliff Curtis (Emilio), Jordi Molla (Marco)

Directed by Olivier Megaton / Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

COLUMBIANA is what it is: pure and unrefined empty-minded trash.  

Here’s the thing, though: it’s proficiently well made trash that is wholeheartedly easy to digest with just the right appetite going in.

I will not apologize for having more giddy enjoyment with the film than I was certainly expecting, nor will I completely condone its gratuitously sensationalistic hodgepodge of action, babes 'n' guns eroticism, and high octane carnage.  COLUMBIANA is tasty junk food cinema that’s not good for mass consumption on a regular viewing basis, but every once in a while it provides adequate sustenance. 

The film tells a story that has literally be done thousands of times before, and for that matter better, but to complain too much about its limited ambition may be a bit nitpicky on my part.  The script is just a miniscule blueprint for the film’s action and stunts, most of which have a propulsive energy, strong pacing, and white knuckled innovation.  The story is also pretty much secondary to the sultry appeal of its star, Zoe Saldana, who indeed is a very, very gorgeous woman, but one that thanklessly manages to make her role here feel emotionally vulnerable, slinky and sexy, and tough as nails at the same time.  Not many beautiful women can plausibly evoke an alluring and dangerous façade without it coming off as phony, but Saldana can.   

In the film she plays Cataleya, who as a very young girl growing up in Bogotá experienced a Bruce Wayne-like child trauma that would go on to influence her formative years.  In the film’s well orchestrated and paced opening prologue, it is 1992 and young Cataleya (Amandla Stebberg, who eerily looks like a young Saldana) witnesses the brutal assassination of her mother and father by a reprehensible crime boss, Don Luis (Beto Benites) and his even crueler number two in command, Marco (Jordi Molla).  Cataleya barely escapes the hellish ordeal with her life, as she uses adrenaline and an almost laughable level of gravity-defying dexterity to evade Don Luis’ thugs through the Bogotá streets.   

She manages to flee her home city and migrates to America (Chicago, to be precise) where she ends up under the care and tutelage of Uncle Emilio (the always robustly dependable Cliff Curtis, having considerable fun enunciating his mentor figure with a very obvious Pacino-ian SCARFACE accent).  Although Emilio wants to raise Cataleya as normally as possible, all she is consumed with are thoughts of revenge.  Begrudgingly, Emilio offers her a life-altering choice, one of which is to be trained as a lethal, ass-kicking assassin for hire.   

15 years go by and the once traumatized girl grows into adulthood and into a vengeful, stealthy, and limitlessly dangerous killing machine.  She picks off her prey one by one and leaves a calling card, of sorts, on the bodies: she signs her victims chests with a lipstick drawing of a Columbian orchid species.  While she is not methodically hunting down the ultimate target of her lifelong revenge plan, she develops an intimate relationship with a hunky artist (a bland Michael Vartan) that, of course, has no real idea that she is a terminatrix leading a secret double life.  While trying to keep her secrets from her friend with benefits, Cataleya also tries to evade a FBI agent (a solidly reliable Lennie James) that is trying to pick up all of the clues that she has left at her numerous crime scenes.   

COLUMBIANA was envisioned by the screenwriter pair of Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, a duo that has collaborated before on films like TAKEN and THE TRANSPORTER trilogy.  Besson himself easily has claimed the mantel of chief provocateur of “Euro-trash” exploitation action cinema, which is typified by incredulously relentless action, scandalously sleazy storylines, and grimly determined anti-heroes.  I can’t quite label COLUMBIANA as Euro-trash…maybe Columbia-blaxploitation-trash would be more appropriate here.  Just like all of Besson’s previously written action pictures, COLUMBIANA makes no qualms about its seedy artifice, which is good in the sense that hiding behind it would be a miscalculation. 

The film’s director, Olivier Megaton (um…yeah…that’s not his real name) made the Besson produced TRANSPORTER 3 and they’re back together again to successfully deliver more of the expected accouterments from this genre.  Many of COLUMBIANA's fight scenes – even when spastically edited – have a real tenacity and ingenuity (I never knew that dual wielded toothbrushes could be so effectively deadly) and Cataleya's staged break-ins and assassination plots are kind of absurdly implausible, but fiendishly entertaining.  Her first assignment in the story as an adult hitwoman is an elaborately choreographed and planned mission that involves her playing a drunk floozy that must get apprehended and arrested, thrown in jail, during which time she must secretly escape from her cell, find her prey that is also rotting away behind bars, kill him, and then get back to her cell undetected.  A second scheme involves a pitch-perfectly timed plan to get a mobster to be eaten…by his own pet sharks.   

Everything mentioned here is seriously preposterous, but enjoyable, especially coming off a surprisingly good first act setup that dives more into the back-story of young Cataleya.  This has the positive effect of making the girl’s plight and mission as an adult feel more consequential, and this is where Saldana’s performance is crucial as well.  Superficially, much of the advertising has rightfully exuded the sinful virtues of the AVATAR actress’ womanly endowments while wearing crazily skin-tight outfits and next to nothing the rest of the time.  Saldana is a fetchingly eroticized action figure, to be sure, here, but she imbues in her role a melancholic soul and gritty resolve and her good performance helps evade criticism of the film’s lackluster and conventional nature.  Without her, COLUMBIANA would fall apart real quick. 

Nonetheless, I still have reservations about giving COLUMBIANA a full vote of support.  The film is another regrettably limp-wristed and cute PG-13 actioneer that pathetically cries out to be a hard-nosed R.  Saldana's relationship with Vartan’s artist is on pure and tedious autopilot and the pair lack tangible chemistry.  Then there is the fact that Besson - perhaps more than he has in any other film - seems to be sluggishly riffing on the kinetic energy, style, and themes from his far superior LA FEMME NIKITA and, more precisely, THE PROFESSIONAL (female assassins…been there, done that, Luc).  COLUMBIANA may be borderline plagiaristic drivel and, yup, trashy to the hilt.  Yet, as far as movie trash goes, the film is, as mentioned previously, more agreeably edible than most.

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