The Fifth Element
Screenplay : Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Bruce Willis (Korben Dallas), Gary Oldman (Zorg), Milla Jovovich (Leeloo), Ian Holm (Cornelius), Chris Tucker (D.J. Ruby Rhod), Brion James (General Munro), Tom 'Tiny' Lister Jr. (President Lindberg)
What an exhilarating, visual feast is Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element." And what a mess.
Combining hokey science fiction, quasi-religious sentiments, and a garish French new wave fashion sensibility, "The Fifth Element" is a tumultuous cinematic experience to say the least. It veers from being passably interesting to insulting to exciting to downright stupid. Writer/director Besson ("La Femme Nikita," "The Professional") originally wrote the script when he was 16, and it would take a lot to convince me that he's changed a word in the 22 years that have passed since then. Although this movie is literally dripping with eye-popping special effects, they're all hung on a scatterbrained plot that is literally incomprehensible.
The hero of "The Fifth Element" is a 23rd century cabdriver named Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). Oh, yeah, he also used to be a member of an elite, highly-trained special military force. How convenient. He gets embroiled in a plot of enormous significance when Leeloo, a supreme being played by wafish Milla Jovovich ("Return to the Blue Lagoonî), literally drops into his cab.
Now, try to keep up. Leeloo is the Fifth Element of the title. She is more or less life itself, and she has returned to earth because every five thousand years, a giant ball of evil hurtles toward the planet, and only by putting her together with four special rocks representing the other four elements (earth, fire, wind, and water) in a special Egyptian temple can mankind create a weapon to destroy the, um, evil. So, the main thrust of the movie is Korben Dallas and Leeloo shooting around, trying to get ahold of the other four stones before the evil Zorg (played ludicrously by the usually reliable Gary Oldman) does.
Visually, this movie is a triumph. The special effects are breathtaking, and Besson's vision of the future is much like that of "Blade Runner," but multiplied by ten and given some sunshine and humor. In 23rd century New York, the skyscrapers raise 500 stories into the air, and the sky is filled with multiple layers of zipping, screaming, flying cars. Besson, obviously trying to outdo the flying vehicles of both "Blade Runner" and "Back to the Future Part II," gives us so many that I was taxed to understand how this mid-air highway system could ever work. Of course, that meant I was thinking, which is something you aren't supposed to do during "The Fifth Element." Besson doesn't care whether his future vision is viable or not -- he just wants it to look good.
Which is also the case of the costumes, designed by famous French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. His idea of fashion seems to be a combination of packing tape, rubber, and reflective vinyl. You have to see Leeloo's first outfit to believe it. It looks like Gaultier wrapped her in a couple strands of medical gauze, and that's it. I guess it's the closest thing to full nudity that can be passed in a PG-13 film.
Willis' down-to-earth presence manages to ground the film just enough to keep it from flying completely out of whack, but he still looks a bit lost, even with his bleach blond hair and skin-tight orange rubber shirt. Jovovich is an interesting choice to play Leeloo. I never imaged a supreme being as a supermodel, but why not? I'm willing to suspend my disbelief. The usually distinguished Ian Holm is just plain hammy as a priest who is awaiting Leeloo's arrival.
However, I am fully disgusted with Gary Oldman's pathetic performance as Zorg. Oldman has played so many psychotic baddies in his time, that I guess he was straining to do something new. He plays Zorg as a backwards Southern hillbilly in plastic clothes and a greased haircut that looks like a cross between Andy Warhol and Adolf Hitler. He is neither menacing nor charming -- he's just stupid. He evokes no emotions other than random giggles at how ridiculous he looks and sounds.
My other main complaint is with the character of D.J. Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker), a squeaky-voiced disc jockey who is placed in the movie for what seems to be extended comic relief. He's funny already, but, as "Sling Blade's" Karl Childers would say, "Not funny ha-ha, funny queer." Ruby Rhod is like a souped-up version of Dennis Rodman and Rupaul on speed. He flits about for the last third of the movie wearing a black dress ringed with roses, squawking into his microphone, and generally ruining any excitement generated by the action sequences with his Nathan Lane-ish high-pitched squeal. Maybe this is European comedy run amok, but it fails miserably.
"The Fifth Element" ends up being a major disappointment, not because it doesn't provide enough, but because it provides too much. Besson is one of the few directors such as John Woo and Sam Peckinpah who can make violence and action fluid and nearly poetic. Here he buries all his talents by constantly overreaching in every frame of the movie, whether it be his overuse of special effects, or his lame attempts at slapstick comedy where it isn't appropriate. With a revised screenplay, a lower tone, and a few pushes on the editing button, this could have been an enjoyable movie. As it stands now, it's just the loud and mawkish rantings of a 16-year-old with a $95 million budget.
©1997 James Kendrick