Pleading the Fifth 

Luc Besson's daffy glimpse into the 23rd century

Luc Besson's daffy glimpse into the 23rd century

Nothing dates a movie faster than its vision of the future. When you look at the hard futurist skylines and oppressive machinery of Metropolis now, after seven decades, you see the apprehensions of a world reeling from class revolt and rocked by advances in mass production. Fifteen years ago, Blade Runner literally projected fears of Asian domination onto the L.A. of the coming century—the movie’s futuristic buildings blazed with seven-story ideograms and ads bearing Japanese faces. Someday our great-grandchildren will tune in 1993’s Demolition Man on their synapse-linked TV transmitters, and they’ll gape at the specter of...rampant political correctness! (Far scarier is the movie’s notion that decades from now we’ll all be eating Taco Bell. To indigestion and beyond!)

So what will future generations glean from The Fifth Element, which takes place about 250 years from now? Well, they’ll see plenty of those damned Golden Arches, a symbol more prevalent than the cross in late-20th-century movies. We don’t see money in The Fifth Element, but we do see burgers changing hands; these meat medallions must be the New Currency! Maybe the Arches are futuristic dollar signs, or the mark of a sinister, all-consuming global concern—the muted postal horn from The Crying of Lot 49, with ketchup on request.

If our descendants viddy enough big-budget babies from the 1990s, they’ll learn that both explanations are correct. They’ll also figure out that the presence of the Arches brands The Fifth Element as a certain kind of expensive, explosive movie that flourished late in the century. The good news for us 1997 moviegoers, stuck arse-deep in a premillennial mudslide of disaster bashes, is that apart from that dreaded “M” and other concessions to form—an equation of weaponry with masculinity, the usual anorexic standard of feminine beauty—The Fifth Element delivers a lot of crazy, extravagant pleasures that have nothing to do with blowing stuff up.

The most obvious of these is the movie’s eye-popping look. After a brief World War I-era prologue in Egypt, the action shifts to New York City in the year 2259. The early scenes are indoors; whenever a portal opens on the outside world, we practically crane our necks for a glimpse. (That’s when I knew the movie would be fun.) But when Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), a striking yarn-doll of a woman in a fetching Jean-Paul Gaultier duct-tape ensemble, eludes a cadre of police by slipping onto the ledge of a mile-high skyscraper, the movie gives us our first good look at the future—and it’s cool.

As with everything else in The Fifth Element, the details are swiped from other movies—the flying cars from Blade Runner, the high-rise hell of Brazil—but they’re infused with a zippy, plasticene playfulness, as if Manhattan had been razed and rebuilt by Tonka. Bottomless vertical canyons yawn between buildings, and the space buzzes with thousands of bee-like autos. Leeloo peers for a moment into this buzzing void—and then launches herself off the building with a dive worthy of Olympia. This shot alone is worth the price of a ticket.

You’ll notice I haven’t said much about the plot. What’s to say? Leeloo crashes through the roof of cabbie Bruce Willis, who’s appealing and vulnerable in a way he never is in American action vehicles, and from there the movie careens madly from slapstick to musical numbers, from religious drama to Raiders of the Lost Ark, all on several different planets. (The movie’s anti-war message is somewhat undercut by the many gun battles and explosions.) That the director, Luc Besson, keeps the many plot threads as untangled as he does is miraculous. That he cares about this lunacy is beside the point.

The surprise is that a director at the helm of somebody’s $100 million investment could permit himself so many flights of whimsy. As a routine action picture, by major-studio standards, The Fifth Element is something of a washout: The women aren’t threatened with rape, the hero isn’t tortured or beaten into lunch meat, and the villains are the motleyest bunch of underachievers this side of a Bill & Ted movie. As a flood of breathtaking images and thrill-ride sensations, it’s often overwhelming—it leaves you begging for more, not begging for mercy. You wanna see where those canyons lead? Besson sends the camera zooming straight down at vertiginous speed—at rush hour, no less. Even better is a long sequence aboard an interstellar resort ship that allows Besson to intercut an aria sung by a pastel-tentacled alien with some gymnastic Bruce Lee-style ass-kicking. Don’t ask—just watch.

Besson is just as indulgent with his actors—especially Gary Oldman’s mad-industrialist villain. Where most actors would’ve played this would-be dictator as a figure of menace, Oldman invents him as Elvis Hitler, a scrawny, bandy-legged klutz with Ross Perot’s nasal honk. For some strange reason, the movie saddles Willis with a talk-show-host sidekick played by Chris Tucker; stranger still is that the part is conceived and played as a gonzo parody of Prince and Dennis Rodman. Far better is Milla Jovovich, whose feral punk-marionette act is by turns lethal and lovable. And memorable cameos turn up from La Haine director Mathieu Kassovitz as a spastic mugger and from Lee Evans, the gifted vaudeville comic of Funny Bones.

The Fifth Element is comically ineffectual whenever it apes the standard scripting of Hollywood thrillers. The scenes involving the U.S. president (Tiny Lister Jr.) are so inept they’re surreal, and the exposition is so daft that the hero goes on his secret mission by winning a televised lottery. I found these failings charming. Luc Besson became a superstar director on the basis of his French thriller La Femme Nikita, a movie that many critics here and abroad despised for its imitation of cruddy American action flicks. The death of French cinema as we know it, The New Yorker’s Terrence Rafferty called the movie in a famous one-line review, and Besson’s prints were all over the murder weapon. Now French moviemakers decry the homogenization of their national cinema, and Besson uses French money to make American studio product. What makes The Fifth Element such fun is that he can’t quite sell out enough. Even with the stamp of approval of the McDonald’s arches, this loopy, delirious thriller just can’t turn itself into a rote piece of major-studio crap. Don’t worry about the French cinema, which can’t manufacture perfect knock-offs of our world-dominating assembly-line swill. Worry about our cinema, which can.—Jim Ridley

Powers of persuasion

Outrageous mugging is not in short supply in movie comedies these days. So why shell out good money to see more of it in a spy spoof called Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery? Simply because Mike Myers is no Jim Carrey. Instead of playing someone who’s supremely amused by his own rubber-faced antics, as Carrey does, Myers actually creates characters. Sketch staples from his Saturday Night Live days, such as Simon (the British boy who liked “drawring” in his bathtub), have resurfaced in Austin Powers, a secret agent who could be the love child of Richard Avedon and Richard Lester.

Back in the swinging ’60s, Powers could run down the streets of London in front of a screaming mob of miniskirted chicks, and he could inspire bobbies to break into the frug. But both he and his arch-nemesis Dr. Evil (also played by Myers, doing a Lorne Michaels impression) were frozen in ’67. Now Evil is back, going through the usual routine of holding the U.N. hostage with a stolen nuclear weapon, so the Ministry of Defense thaws out Powers and sends him to Evil’s Las Vegas lair. Powers is paired up with the daughter of his original Diana Rigg-ish sidekick, Miss Kensington, a Cosmo girl played by Elizabeth Hurley.

Most of the screenplay’s humor arises from Powers’ anachronistic attitudes toward sex, as he talks gleefully and without restraint about the “shaggability” of a given “bird.” Myers can pull off this dialogue not because he’s shameless, but because Powers is. That open, trusting face...that playful grin...those crooked teeth...they bespeak the sex machine who will never learn. Dr. Evil’s shtick is that none of his henchpeople have told him about inflation, or Prince Charles’ divorce, or other information crucial to a madman bent on world domination. It’s intermittently funny, but the coy villain never has the charisma of the movie’s uninhibited hero.

Austin Powers is less a genre parody, however, than a gagfest. Given the wacky names and acronym merriment of the early scenes, it seems inspired by the classic Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedies, which threw so many jokes at the audience that some percentage of them were bound to hit home. But Myers, who wrote the movie, has a different gag strategy: repeat the joke until the repetition itself elicits a laugh. Bathroom and bedroom functions get equal time—and that’s a lot of time. A note to parents: the PG-13 rating isn’t just decoration on the lobby poster. In this case, it stands for Penis Growth (jokes).

Myers has a lot of fun pretending to be sly and sophisticated while the movie wallows in lowest-common-denominator territory. Among the supporting players, Michael York is a good sport as the aptly named Basil Exposition, and Robert Wagner seems appropriately put-upon as Evil’s eye-patched Number Two. But pacing, the essence of comedy, isn’t always in evidence. So much rides on each joke that when some fall flat, the movie stumbles. Perhaps the necessity of going through with the plot makes Austin Powers seem labored toward the end.

When the title character is onscreen and doing his groovy thing, though, the movie really swings. Myers spouts invented Britishisms and improvises physical business with such energy that he becomes as lovable as Powers thinks he is. Gags and spit-takes can take a comedy only so far. It’s the star willing to play the fool for a laugh who can bring it home.—Donna Bowman

Arrivaderci Romy

There’ve been few funnier moments in movies lately than the high-school reunion sequence in Grosse Pointe Blank. The way the alumni tried to remain aloof, to treat revisiting high school as an ironic experience, while at the same time falling into old patterns of behavior—the level of observation in those scenes elevated the movie from an affected black comedy to a sharp social satire.

Unfortunately, no such glory awaits Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Despite warm chemistry between stars Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow, and a few laugh-out-loud lines from acerbic costar Janeane Garofalo, Romy and Michele is plagued by an ineptly structured script and too many obvious gags. A lengthy mid-film fantasy sequence makes the actual reunion anticlimactic, and the insights into the decade-long persistence of high-school strata are pretty wan. The biggest flaws, though, are Romy and Michele. Though agreeable, they’re too cute and ditzy to hold the center of a film. They’re more like R-rated dress-up dolls than compelling leads.—Noel Murray

Blah blah blah

“Serviceable” is the word that best applies to the slate of movies we’ve faced the first four months of this year. Dante’s Peak, Absolute Power, The Devil’s Own, Anaconda, Volcano—each of these films gets the job done, even if, once they wrap up, the job seems hardly worth doing. Murder at 1600 joins the ranks of these pluggers, though it does have two things working in its favor: The director, Dwight Little, keeps the film moving briskly; and Wesley Snipes brings welcome charisma to his lead character, a DC homicide cop investigating a murder at the White House. Snipes chomps on a cigar and shrugs off the stonewalling attempts by grim G-men Daniel Benzali and Alan Alda. When the going gets tough, he tosses off a wry quip, along with a healthy dose of Snipe-Fu.

For Little’s part, he keeps exposition to a minimum and doesn’t let the plot (a twisty affair involving sex, betrayal, and hostages in Korea) get in the way of the gunfights and car chases. A wise choice, given the general implausibility of a White House murder and cover-up escaping the scrutiny of the press and the police. The movie, like so many this year, disappears from your head as you watch it; it’s mostly just an excuse to sit in the dark and eat popcorn. —Noel Murray

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