Besson's lost it, but the cast are having a blast
Writer/Director Luc Besson and master actor Robert DeNiro have, between them, provided two of my top five films of all time. Besson, at the height of his career, delivered the masterpiece that is Leon; DeNiro, in probably one of the biggest years of his career, gave us the Casino/Heat double-bill, the latter of which is one of two Michael Mann crime thrillers to make my Top Five (the other being Manhunter).
Things have changed though. Almost two decades on and neither filmmaker is particularly renowned for their craft anymore. Besson has become something of a hack writer, churning out endless derivative DTV-level action fodder - at its best we get Taken and The Transporter, but the likes of Colombiana, Taken 2 and The Transporter 3 remind us of his lost genius. He was once known as the Writer/Director of Nikita, Leon and The Fifth Element; a man of consummate skill and distinctive style, whose fairytale stories boasted colourful characterisations and standout action sequences. Coming out of directorial quasi-retirement, to direct none other than Robert DeNiro, should have been a cause for celebration, not concern.But DeNiro's name in a movie is a likely to worry as it is to entice these days. After all, he managed to screw up a reteaming with his Heat co-mega-star, Pacino, in the abysmal Righteous Kill. Sure, there's always someone else to blame for the films that he has done recently, but he is still the common factor, a haunting fact for long-term fans of a man who was once regarded as one of the greatest actors of all time, but who had shown little to support that assertion of late. A decent supporting turn in Silver Linings Playbook gives us a glimpse at what he is still capable of, but there's simply too much chaff to sift through these days.
Teaming up with Besson could have been a stroke of genius for the ageing method master, the disappointing Killer Elite still showed a spark of promise from a more action-driven DeNiro, in the vein of his enjoyable Ronin character, and Besson certainly knows action. But, instead, the French filmmaker went down another route entirely, delivering us a strange mishmash crime-comedy-drama, which flips unconvincingly between bouts of quite vicious violence to moments of inexplicable emotional tenderness, none of which rings in the least bit true.
The Family - known in other parts of the world under the far less generic title of Malavita - is a little bit like a cross between Goodfellas and Kick Ass.
Besson, who appears to have lost all of both the skill and distinctive style that oozed out of his earlier features, struggles to balance the dark humour with the excessive violence and doesn't really seem to know what he's doing at all anymore. He's got a cast to die for - DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer as the heads of a strange ex-Mafia household, who are hiding in Normandy under the watch of Tommy Lee Jones's grumpy witness protection chief - and yet he doesn't really know what to do with them.
There are sparks of cleverness - the initial arrival sees the teenage kids on scene-stealing form as they plot to take over their new school, and the mini-story sequences for Pfeiffer at the supermarche and DeNiro with the plumber provide some entertainment in establishing the fact that these guys may have left the life, but the old ways never leave them. Unfortunately the great ideas, at least on paper, never seem to translate that well.
Besson has never been known for his writing skills, and here his colourful but cardboard cutout characters suffer as a result. The daughter, who initially surprises with her gusto and resolve, lapses into uncharacteristic and thoroughly implausible melancholy following one of the most ludicrous love scenes ever captured on film. DeNiro's subplot to get to the root of the problem that is causing his tap water to run brown is more interesting than the actual witness protection / mob hitman denouement, and a potential goldmine of witty, self-referential observation - where they sit down to watch Goodfellas - is left feeling distinctly inert, through unnecessary cross-cutting with more inferior scenes.
Supposedly following the source novel, Malavita (AKA Badfellas) quite closely, Besson's issues must lie with his own adapted screenplay and his on-screen direction, which frequently forgoes genuine character development in favour of gut-punch entertainment - an effective technique, if only he hadn't tried to rely on that same non-existent character development for his more serious final act twists.
I've railed against the film - and Besson - enough to make you steer clear, but there is a silver lining, of some sorts. Whilst the material itself leaves you feeling that he cast is utterly wasted, somehow, inexplicably, they managed to rise above it all to show audiences something quite unexpected and quite unstoppably entertaining: they're having an absolute blast.
DeNiro clearly loves revelling in this old mobster territory, and he takes to it with aplomb (the atypical, and pointedly humorous use of the f-word remaining one of the few strong points in the script). He's not on 'great actor' form, but, opposite Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones, he really lets go and has fun with the part. Pfeiffer signed on purely to finally collaborate with DeNiro, and they share great chemistry together - one of their best scenes is what feels like a truly natural, almost improvised moment on the sofa, laughing and playing perfectly off one another (you've also got to give credit to Pfeiffer for remaining one of those rare actresses who hasn't had some elaborate facial work done - and remains classically stunning as a result). Even Tommy Lee Jones, whose tired apathy towards protecting this incorrigible family of psychos initially translates as apathy towards the role itself, eventually warms up to his work opposite DeNiro, sharing a couple of nice latter-end moments. Hell, even the child actors who play the teen son and daughter (yes, the girl is, for her sins, from Glee) do a stand-up job in their jarringly inconsistent roles.
Besson may have lost his touch but the cast are having an absolute blast.
So if you do fold and end up seeing The Family, even if just for curiosity value, you may well end up smiling to yourself at all the most unintentional moments. Besson may have lost his touch, but the cast still pool together to provide unexpected entertainment just because they look like they're having so much fun together. Sometimes, that's just enough to turn a bad movie into a perfectly watchable one.
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