Colombiana: She walks in beauty, and brings a bazooka

August 28, 2011

By Mike Hale in the New York Times

Refusing to believe what the evidence is telling him, the FBI agent chasing the implacable killer in Colombiana snarls: “We’re not looking for a woman. It’s not possible.”

Apparently he hasn’t been watching enough Luc Besson movies. The director of this potboiler revenge fantasy may be Olivier Megaton (a great action-director name, even if it is pronounced may-gah-TONE). But the guiding spirit is clearly that of Besson, a writer and producer of the film, who can claim to have created and continually perfected the lethal-woman-in-her-underwear genre to which Colombiana belongs.

Besson’s previous avenging waifs have included Anne Parillaud (in the foundational Femme Nikita), a very young Natalie Portman (The Professional) and an orange-haired Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element). His latest muse is Zoe Saldana, the blue-skinned heroine of Avatar, who proves to be equally adept at the essential skill of wielding large guns while wearing skimpy clothing. (Well, maybe not as adept as Jovovich, who seems to have been genetically engineered for this kind of thing.)

What’s not required is the creation of an actual character; the best an actress can hope for is to look good and, if the director and screenwriter cooperate, maintain her dignity and sense of humor. Saldana, playing an almost supernaturally skilled hit woman and parkour enthusiast whose larger mission is to avenge the murder of her Colombian drug-dealing parents, has to work hard in that regard.

That’s because Colombiana isn’t content to be a comic-book joyride (though it is that); it has pretensions to a more turgid class of revenge melodrama, along the lines of Tony Scott’s Man on Fire. It also has pretensions, period: Megaton sprinkles in homages to Francis Ford Coppola (Saldana’s rising out of the water like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now) and Brian De Palma (the climactic sequence at a drug lord’s lair is redolent of Scarface). The overall effect is distancing; there are some early comic moments that have you laughing along with the movie, but eventually the clashing tones and preposterousness just have you laughing.

Saldana has one other thing to overcome: the presence of a wide-eyed 13-year-old actress named Amandla Stenberg, who plays the protagonist, Cataleya Restrepo, at the time her parents are gunned down, in the first 10 minutes of the movie. Her portrayal of the future deadly-but-sensitive killer is such a perfect combination of trembling emotion, action chops and deadpan humor that Saldana, no matter how sexily professional her work is, spends the rest of the movie failing to live up to it.

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