Scarlett Johansson becomes good with a gun in "Lucy." Credit: Jessica Forde
Luc Besson is French but that doesn’t mean everyone in America doesn’t know him. Since his earliest films — including 1985’s “Subway” and the aquatic epic “The Big Blue” — the filmmaker has sought to do Hollywood in France, but has brought more than a mere Eurotrash flavor. He regularly redefines what we consider action stars. And once he started, in the late ’90s, farming out his scripts to other directors, he created a cottage industry of junk cinema that has introduced moviegoers to parkour, Liam Neeson as an action star and the concept of a space jail. Here are some of his innovations in a field that doesn’t always welcome them:
Anne Parillaud goes from junkie to hot assassin in a dress in "Nikita." Credit: Provided
‘Nikita,’ aka ‘La Femme Nikita’ (1989) Type: Girl with a gun Besson: Wrote and directed The ’80s teemed with big dudes with big muscles and bigger guns, Besson distinguished himself — all the way from France, no less — by arming a hot woman (Anne Parillaud). The film that launched a franchise (recently a show with Maggie Q) watches as a junkie is turned into a killing machine, and one who doesn’t rough up her dress as she shoots down marks.
Back when she wasn't even a teenager, Natalie Portman played a girl who learns how to be an assassin from Jeno Reno in "The Professional." Credit: Provided
‘Leon,’ aka ‘The Professional,’ aka ‘Leon: The Professional’ (1994) Types: Quiet French guy, 12-year-old girl Besson: Wrote and directed Besson finally came to America, but did it his way — which is to say by ignoring what would generally be considered good, American taste. Not only does he put guns in the hands of pre-teen Natalie Portman, he has her develop a kind of relationship with the assassin (Jean Reno) who becomes her savior. The longer cut even features a scene where they go on a dinner date.
Milla Jovovich plays an element who becomes a gun-toting woman in "The Fifth Element." Credit: Provided
‘The Fifth Element’ (1997) Type: Acrobatic female embodiment of an element Besson: Wrote and directed Originally conceived when he was 16, Besson’s sci-fi monstrosity continued his trend with casting women to kick ass whom he would then date. It happened with Parillaud and it happened with Milla Jovovich, who gave her all as she babbled a made-up language — faring better than Jodie Foster in “Nell,” no less — and offered impressive mass beat-downs…even if she ultimately has to be saved by a blond Bruce Willis.
Jason Statham (holding Shu Qi) became an action star with "The Transporter." Credit: Provided
‘The Transporter’ series (2002-) Type: Old school Besson: Wrote and produced With “Nikita,” Besson broadened the scope of what constitutes an action star. By the early aughts, the old type had largely fallen out of favor, to the point where a ripped, bulletheaded, taciturn badass like Jason Statham seemed like a throwback to a bygone era. A paid driver who takes jobs moving questionable cargo (usually women in trouble), he’s not above taking his shirt off and taking out a room of baddies armed only with a hose.
David Belle (flying) helped introduce the world to parkour with "District B13." Credit: Provided
‘District B13’ (2004) Type: Parkour god Besson: Wrote and produced The “holistic training discipline” — i.e., the activity in which ridiculously agile people who can traverse obstacles (walls, staircases, gaps between buildings) without breaking their speed — is a no-brainer for action movies. And it was Besson who first capitalized on it, putting some of the best practitioners (like David Belle) in a dystopian thriller that gave them plenty of chances to strut their stuff. It wrought both a sequel and an American remake (this year’s “Brick Mansions”).
Gisele Bundchen (in white) plays the leader of a gang of supermodel thieves in "Taxi." Credit: Provided
‘Taxi’ (2004) Type: Supermodel bank robbers Besson: Wrote and produced In France, Besson has milked four films out of his action-comedy series, starting in 1998, about a hapless cabbie who solves crimes, sometimes with a pre-Oscar Marion Cotillard. When he brought it to America, he gave his hero (now Jimmy Fallon) the series’ weirdest adversaries: a gang of bank robbers all played by drop-dead-gorgeous models, including Gisele Bundchen. OK, maybe the weirdest is the gang of thieves dressed like Santa Clauses in “Taxi 3.”
Jet Li plays a man raised since birth to be a fighting man-dog in "Unleashed." Credit: Provided
‘Unleashed’ (2005) Type: Ass-kicking manimal Besson: Wrote and produced Jet Li rarely gets the chance to play more than guys who bring the pain (though “The Warlords” actually has him cry), but Besson knew he could play one thing outside his wheelhouse: a man raised from birth by a Cockney crime lord (Bob Hoskins) to be a fighting man-dog. When he escapes his confines, he’s trained in the art of being human by a blind pianist (Morgan Freeman) and his hotcha stepdaughter (Kerry Condon).
Liam Neeson went from serious thespian to action star in "Taken." Credit: Provided
‘Taken’ (2008) Type: Ass-kicking older guy who starred in "Schindler's List" Besson: Wrote and produced It seems silly now, but there was a time when Liam Neeson was little more than a serious, Oscar-nominated actor who would do respectable dramas. But Besson sensed that at 56 he was ready to finally shoot guys repeatedly in the head, waterboard perps and calmly recite a monologue about using his “special set of skills” to find and kill anyone who kidnaps his daughter. Thanks to him, it now seems weird when he does a Scorsese drama about persecuted Jesuit priests (i.e., next year’s “Silence”).
Guy Pearce does his best Bruce Willis in "Lockout." Credit: Provided
‘Lockout’ (2012) Type: Bruce Willis-style wisecracker Besson: Wrote and produced Besson worked with Bruce Willis in “The Fifth Element,” but he largely kept him penned-in, rarely letting him cut loose with his signature brand of cynical, weary jokes. Turns out he was saving that shtick for Guy Pearce, who does a shockingly spot-on Willis impersonation as the grumpy hero who has to — in one of Besson’s nuttier and most enjoyable premises — rescue the president’s daughter from a space jail.
Scarlett Johansson plays a woman dosed with a drug that gives her increasing command over her brain powers in "Lucy." Credit: Jessica Forde
‘Lucy’ (2014) Type: Person with unlimited brain capacity Besson: Wrote and directed Besson exploits a discredited myth — that we only use 10 percent of our brain, or less — for action goods. Here, Scarlett Johansson is dosed with a drug that gradually escalates her command over her entire brain, and with it all matter. In fact, after awhile it’s not even an action film, but one that tries to solve the mysteries of the universe.
Read our interview with Luc Besson for his latest films, "Lucy," here.