Picture a bottle-blond Bruce Willis as a New York cabbie with a fleet of squad cars riding his ass. Same old, same old? Hardly. Korben Dallas, the hero who Willis plays in The Fifth Element, drives a cab that lifts off like a rocket. The cops are similarly jet-propelled. The year is 2259, and the midair speed chase around the canyons of Manhattan starts when a mystery babe (Milla Jovovich), dressed in what look like peekaboo Band-Aids, leaps from a ledge into Korben’s taxi. The scene is a dazzler, a take on Fritz Lang’s futuristic, silent-screen Metropolis for the digital age. Even better, the scene makes you laugh out loud, right down to the sky ships peddling junk food.
This Blade Runner on giggle gas is the handiwork of French director Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Professional), who takes a perversely giddy approach to matters that Hollywood epics overload with bogus gravity, such as the indigestible brotherhood message in Volcano. The Fifth Element, which just opened the Cannes Film Festival on its 50th anniversary, is a $90 million bonbon that is no less tasty for its being filled with hot air and fantasy. The 38-year-old Besson, who wrote the script with Robert Mark Kamen, has been working on the story since he was 16 and wants to protect the film’s surprises from blabbing critics. Why bother? The plot is too incoherent to give away. It’s the eye-popping images that count. Le Dernier Combat, Besson’s 1984 debut film, had no dialogue. The Fifth Element doesn’t need what it has, a point Besson tweaks by having Jovovich’s character talk rapidly in a language that makes her sound as indecipherable as Geoffrey Rush in Shine.
Here’s what you need to know: Willis’ cabbie must save Band-Aid girl from the clutches of the evil Zorg (Gary Oldman), or else the Fifth Element – a form of anti-life that gets to emerge once every 5,000 years – will destroy the universe. Besson sparks his sci-fi Die Hard With a Vengeance with wonders that include the costumes of Jean Paul Gaultier, the comic-book designs of Moebius and Jean-Claude Mezieres and the visual effects supervised by Mark Stetson (Total Recall, True Lies) of Digital Domain. In this let’s-pretend world of interplanetary travel, alien guards, explosive weaponry and a genetically engineered opera diva, you might expect the human element to be rendered insignificant.
Not with these actors. Oldman, as the green-tinged, punk-rockish villain Zorg, and Chris Tucker, as the media-crazed, drag-queenish DJ Ruby, engage in a contest of hamming that is missing only the garnish of pineapple. The Ukraine-born 21-year-old Jovovich – a model, actress (Return to the Blue Lagoon) and recording artist (The Divine Comedy) while still in her teens – is a sexy sensation in the impossible role of Besson’s symbol of supreme love. Forced to watch examples of man’s inhumanity through the ages, this carnal angel is crushed with grief in a scene that nearly crushes the film with its overbearing mawkishness.
Willis is the life of the party in a Bogart-tough performance that glimmers with the self-mocking wit that distinguished his work in Pulp Fiction, Nobody’s Fool and 12 Monkeys. In these days of sensitive machos – even Tommy Lee Jones succumbs to sappiness in Volcano – Willis stays a hard case. He even makes us believe that Korben harbors a sense of honor. Strength of character helps anchor the film when Besson pulls out all the stops and stages a climactic battle on another planet. Gorgeously shot by Thierry Arbogast and edited by Sylvie Landra, the sequence – like the movie itself – is a visual knockout. Of course, there is less art here than art direction. At its worst, The Fifth Element bangs away at you like a bully with something to hide. The gaping holes in the plot, perhaps? At its best, Besson’s film has the lunatic poetry of a really fun dream.