Action Heroes – Willis: The Fifth Element

Luc Besson’s wonderfully exuberant, joyous and unashamedly over the top 1997 science-fiction action fantasy extravaganza comes up for the full retrospective treatment. Forming part of Filmwerk’s summer 2011 [Action Hero] season of retrospectives, (Bruce Willis fortnight of course).

Some readers may have seen the review of the recent Region 2 Blu-ray release of the film elsewhere on the site. For those that haven’t and are in the market to buy the Hi-def edition, the review can still be found [here]. It of course specifically deals with the Blu-ray presentation itself, although some basic text is common between that piece and this. In this retrospective however, I will as usual try to contextualise, expand and commentate a little on how I feel about the film.

Ok, let’s get on with it then.

Straight off the bat, allow me to say that if I had to put a laminated list together of my top 25 favourite movies of all time, The 5th Element would be on it. I can always watch it over and over, and it never loses its lustre. It’s a terrific film which delighted, thrilled and entertained in equal measure. But before I get too carried away with waxing lyrical; let’s just back up a bit and have a quick recap of cast and plot.

Along with Willis, the film stars a very young and stunning looking Milla Jovovich (more on her later). Next is the great Ian Holm, versatile and eloquent as ever. Then we have the always fascinating presence of Gary Oldman. Oldman was already a well established acting heavy hitter of course, and he shines here.
In addition to these good folks, we have a quality supporting cast including Chris Tucker; the late great Brion James; big man Tom Lister Jr. and the slightly inexplicable presence of Luke Perry. I always felt a bit sorry for Perry, as his character appears only at the top end of the movie in an entirely separate prologue segment (set in Egypt in the early 20th century). He therefore never gets to act a scene with the principal cast. I always like to imagine he’s somewhere in one of the crowd scenes too.

Also making a somewhat odd (for us Brits) appearance is manic nutbar comedian, Lee Evans, and British Trip-Hop artist, Tricky. Completing the vista, we also see a whole smorgasbord of familiar British acting faces as well as incredibly glamorous euro model types, bodybuilders, and quasi recognisable fashionistas. This movie is at least looking pretty sweet already isn’t it.

The premise In a nutshell (although knowing me, it’ll be a fairly enormous nutshell), is a classic ultimate good against ultimate evil, end of the world as we know it, type of yarn. It’s the 23rd century, and Jovovich plays supreme being and ‘Fifth’ element Leeloo, who, after being blown to smithereens en route to Earth, has been reconstituted from just a surviving hand, in an advanced genetics lab (it’s complicated). Once conscious, she then escapes the lab into the vast futuristic city, bewildered, and disorientated. Leeloo is revealed to be tasked with saving humanity from a mysterious and faceless evil. A force which is currently hurtling towards earth in the form of a moon sized, dark matter sphere. This malevolent evil’s nefarious plans (whatever they are), are being facilitated on earth by über baddie, and soulless military industrialist Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman). Zorg communicates with the most excellently named ‘Mr. Shadow’ by phone, which tends to make his head leak a strange, black, oily goo (no don’t ask, we never find out what the goo is all about, but it does seem appropriately weird and eeevil).

Willis is excellently cast as the washed up ex special forces hero Korben Dallas. Dallas now drives a cab, (a flying cab naturally), and ends up literally being crashed into by a falling Leeloo. Their fates are entwined further when Dallas is forcibly re-commissioned into active duty by General Munroe (Brion James), to effectively help Leeloo perform her sacred role. She must become the ultimate weapon of good and y’know, save the Earth and all of humanity. Holm’s character [Father Vito Cornelius], is the holy man that Dallas delivers the still delirious Leeloo to, and also happens to be charged with seeing that she meets her planet saving destiny.
Lots of fun and adventure ensues while our heroes; hampered every step of the way by Zorg’s hench-forces and later Zorg himself, plus other ‘interested’ bad alien dudes hellbent on revenge against Zorg (the most excellently ugly and violent Mangalores). Korben, Leeloo and the gang travel to the holiday planet of Fhloston Paradise to try and secure the four other ‘Elements’ (which are in the form of four ceremonial stones), and then race back to Egypt to perform the ritual that will see Leeloo release her elemental power, and the great evil extinguished. Mr. Shadow has tasked Zorg with the retrieval of the stones also, in an attempt to disable Leeloo’s ability to thwart him. Phew!
It’s damn good fun!

Backing the time truck up a little further (as is my wont), let’s go back to when the movie was released for a moment:

Ok, so it’s early 1997 and the trailers for The 5th Element are cropping up here and there. What I see of the movie in those trailers and TV spots sets up a massive expectation and desire to go see the movie, and it’s not difficult to see why. I was a huge Sci-Fi fan for a start. I had also seen and really loved three of Besson’s earlier movies ‘Subway’, ‘Nikita’, and of course the sublime ‘Leon’. I was also a lingeringly faithful fan of Bruce Willis. His career had been a little choppy through the early to mid 90’s, but thanks to the likes of Pulp Fiction, Die Hard: With A Vengeance, and Twelve Monkeys; he was definitely sailing calmer waters by the time Luc Besson came a calling. Also a big plus was our leading lady. I defy any young twenty-something, straight, red-blooded dude, to see Milla Jovovich as Leeloo, and not fall instantly in lust with her, oh my! Strangely, I’ve never really been that into her in anything else since. Realising a long time ago that it was Milla as Leeloo that I liked, not just Milla (if you see what I mean?). Finally, and in a way this was the icing on the cake, was a certain clip that got heavily rotated as part of the original promo for the film; the ZF-1 gun demo.
Gun demo you say?
Yeah, all the guys know the scene I’m talking about. Zorg is demonstrating the all singing all dancing new ZF-1 assault weapon to his mercenary Mangalore chums (while they still are chums of course). He shows them all the cool things it can do; like the freeze thrower, the flame thrower, capture net etc. etc. and then the pièce de résistance? The thing that I remember sitting up and going “Hey! now that’s pretty bloody cool”, was of course the ‘replay’ function! This is where you fire one shot directly in to a target and hit the replay button, making every subsequent shot go to the same location regardless of where you point the gun. Cool huh? Now I remember the great visual effect of Zorg first firing a single shot into the target, then pointing the gun directly at the Mangalores and letting rip. Hundreds of rounds then racing around on an impossible trajectory, missing the startled mercenaries and hitting the target behind Zorg. That was it, I was completely sold man. It was the coolest thing I’d seen in a while. That one gag would have been enough for me to absolutely require immediate viewing of the movie the moment it came out.
Luckily, once I did get to see it, I was instantly enthralled with everything else about it too. It seemed to tick just about every popcorn movie box for me. Obviously there was Milla of course. She was a force of nature in that movie (perhaps even a 5th element?! – ooh sorry for that!). She was just perfect though.
As for Bruce….well let’s face it Bruce is Bruce, and that’s never a bad thing.
Besson struck a wonderful balance between the action, Sci-fi, dramatic, and comedy beats. Willis in particular stands out as being the perfect guy to navigate these beats for the entire movie (although a big shout out to Jovovich, Holm, James and many of the others, who are also very funny). Thinking about it now, I really can’t think of anyone else who could have done the job. Willis’ skilful comic touch coupled with his believable and likeable blue collar physicality lends Dallas the same attractive ‘Everyman Hero’ lustre that made John McClane so instantly popular. This time though it’s dressed up in bleach blonde hair and an orange rubber sleeveless muscle vest.

Speaking of the costumes, of course everyone remembers the fact that Jean-Paul Gaultier designed all of them, he was enjoying a very high and ‘on trend’ profile (in his own unique way), and this is an aspect of the movie that seems more amazing now than it even did then. Gaultier did a wonderful job; the exuberant costume design symbiotically working within the broader production design canvas. A canvas crafted by renowned French comic artists Jean Giraud (better known to me as Moebius), and Jean-Claude Mézières. The design language is at once coherent, striking, original and refreshing, and is still a visual delight even now. Nothing else looked like 5th Element.

At the start of 1997 I was still a long haired, leather clad rock guitarist. By the end of that year, I had cut all my hair off, bleached it silver white, and discovered Cyberdog, UFO and ILLIG clothing. I was running around with flashing lights on my trousers, plastic armour plated cyber t-shirts, and three inch soled New Rock boots.
Now, I’m sure this transition would have occurred anyway, but I’m fairly certain The 5th Element played its own small part in helping it along. The look and spirit of the movie was that profound.

One of my favourite comedic scenes in the movie has to be actor/director Mathieu Kassovitz’s brief appearance as the mugger who tries to rob Dallas at his apartment. When you’ve seen a movie a bazillion times, things that made you laugh out loud originally can often go by with nothing more than an amused smile, a raised eyebrow, or not even that. This is no failing, it’s just that like almost any joke, if you’ve heard it enough times, you just can’t react in the same way anymore. That famous scene in Only Fools & Horses where Del-Boy falls through the now opened section of bar he was previously leaning on is a good example. One can still appreciate the genius, comic timing and hilarity of the scene, but it’s power to illicit an honest to goodness gut laugh in most of us has diminished over time, with so many repeat viewings. Now, to be fair, the mugging scene in 5th Element was never a full on gut laugh type of moment, but even now; watching it, I find myself cracking into a gleeful smile in unison with Willis’ own somehow natural and possibly unscripted reaction. I love that scene, Kassovitz is very funny in it, and it serves to further imboss Dallas onto the audience’s hearts.

I guess at this juncture, I have to mention Chris Tucker again in more detail. I’ve heard it said that Tucker is The 5th Element‘s Jar Jar Binks. I think this is overly cruel and insulting to Tucker, but I guess in terms of being the most audience polarising and overtly comic character in the movie, it’s an accurate analogy. Don’t get me wrong, I think Tucker’s ‘Ruby Rhod’ is a lot of fun (unlike Jar Jar), and he has some great lines. It’s really only when the shit hits the fan at Fhloston Paradise, that his constant high pitched, effeminate screams, yelps, whimpers and general overacting can become a little tiresome for some viewers.

So before closing out this retrospective; a note on another critical facet of the movie’s mix; the music.
Eric Serra’s score for the film was a wonderful blend of contemporary beats, electronics and synth drops, coupled with all manner of north African, and middle eastern tonalities and timbres, classical opera, quirky FX and Leitmotivs, as well as a production quality to die for. I bought the soundtrack album in about 1999 or thereabouts, based mainly on the end titles song ‘Little Light of Love’. The soundtrack proved to be very inspiring for me as a young writer and producer of commercial, production music. It is still a very enjoyable and impressive listen today.

I will always hold this film extremely dear. As I said at the beginning, it’s easily top 25 for me. It was immensely successful commercially, even if some critics hated it (what do they know?!). Was it a triumph of style over substance? Depends how you look at it, and by what rationale you’re basing that view on. It’s not a tight little 2 room character drama from the Ukraine, to be sure. But so what? The question one asks is:
Do the movie’s protagonists generate an emotional investment from the audience? I would say yes. We warm to and care about Dallas, Leeloo and Cornelius, and root for them. In a strange way, we even have some sympathy for how bad Zorg’s day gets, by the end. This emotional investment in the characters while the action and mayhem ensues, is surely a sufficient state of affairs in a big budget Sci-Fi, action, fantasy movie, no? It’s certainly a lot more than Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy could muster, that’s for damn sure!
The fact that it did not suffer from the great big, vanilla flavoured paw-print of Hollywood mediocrity that a typical, wholly American Sci-fi production might, is a gloriously valuable asset. European sensibilities and artistic choices mostly win out, and the film has a magnetic joie de vivre that is irresistible. Yet, with the undeniably crucial presence of Mr. Willis, the movie is also universally fun, accessible and unashamedly pure in its intent to entertain and not take itself too seriously….even for Americans.
No offence to our cousins over the pond, but to be fair, you are the ones who got the 1989 James Bond movie title changed to ‘Licence To Kill because not enough of you knew what ‘Licence Revoked meant.
Shame on you!

Still awesome then, and I say:
“Viva Luc Besson!”
“Viva The 5th Element!”
And of course:
“Gimmee the cashhhh!”

Ben Pegley

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