Luc Besson is only one man. Rather than sell out to Hollywood, the filmmaker has stayed in France, creating his own personal cottage industry of easily exportable Eurotrash entertainments. He’s been able to keep it going and expanding by farming out episodes of “The Transporter” and “Taken” — and would-be franchises, like “Colombiana” and “Lockout” — to a swelling stable of budding directors. Some of them go on to careers away from Besson; others are still cutting their teeth. Meanwhile, Besson himself only directs if he feels passionate enough, and isn’t afraid to do the occasional drama or art film. (He’s also, for the record, lent his muscle and money to respectable films, including Gary Oldman’s excellent “Nil by Mouth” and Tommy Lee Jones’ terrific “The Homesman.”)
But how good is his team? Below, we rank Besson’s stable of junk action helmsmen (they’re all men, at least so far) in an attempt to suss out individual voices amidst what is in essence studio product, even if the only one they’re ultimately answerable to is Besson himself:
1. Luc Besson
Since his 1983 debut “The Final Battle,” Besson has staked a reputation as both populist and, sometimes, to a degree, experimental. Indeed, “The Final Battle” is a post-apocalyptic romp not only in black-and-white but without a line of dialogue. He came about in the wave labeled the “Cinema du look,” along with Jean-Jacques Beineix (“Diva,” “Betty Blue”) and Leos Carax (“Mauvais Sang,” semi-recently “Holy Motors”). This loose group was defined by the primacy of their images, which was often compared with the proliferation of music videos with the advent of MTV, but whose films bore an equal obsession with the French New Wave and, in Carax’s case especially, often ran deeper.
Besson became the superstar of the movement, with homegrown crossover hits like “Subway,” “The Big Blue” and the original “La Femme Nikita.” When he came to America he did it his way, with 1994’s “The Professional” (aka “Leon”) a New York-set thriller that plays like his own, usually twisted variation on a blockbuster. (The American cut sanded down the love between hitman Jean Reno and 13-year-old Natalie Portman, but it still ends with them professing their love beyond death.) By the time of 1997’s “The Fifth Element,” he was able to accrue the largest budget in French film history, creating his own sci-fi opus that looked as handsome as any Hollywood product — and with an endearingly confused Bruce Willis at the helm — but, again, with its own, super weird twist. (There were tentacled, blue space divas, plus Chris Tucker in drag.)
Besson once said he would only make 10 films, and by the time that number loomed he had found a technical out: churning out cheaper, less ambitious titles that were directed by up-and-comers but written, at least in part, by him. The “Taxi,” “Transporter” and “Taken” films all lack the hands-on love that Besson brings to his own films. But that slapdash spirit wound up infecting the movies he himself made. “The Family” has more polish than those films, but it’s also sloppy, while “The Lady” — his lone straight-up drama, about Aung San Suu Kyi, played by Michelle Yeoh — is pure anonymous Oscar bait, lacking any trace of his personality. Only last year’s “Lucy” feels like classic Besson. Its premise sounds like one of his farmed-out jobs — Scarlett Johansson as a supreme being vs. the world — but its tight execution and willingness to go off into the far reaches of nuttiness makes it feel like an old friend who’s been gone far too long.
2. Louis Leterrier
Leterrier got his start co-directing the first “Transporter” with legendary stunt choreographer Corey Yuen, and returned to the franchise, solo, with the delightfully goofy “Transporter 2” — the one where Jason Statham fights a gang of baddies with help from a hose and knocks a bomb off of his car by speeding up a ramp towards a helpful hook. He’s always been Besson’s most accomplished and goofiest talent, able to make ridiculous feats of happenstance transcend their stupidity. He also handled “Unleashed,” boasting one of Besson’s most out-there premises: Jet Li as a psycho manimal, tamed by a blind Morgan Freeman. Leterrier was the first of Besson’s gang to light out on his own, tackling the not bad “The Incredible Hulk” in 2008, overseeing the largely joyless “Clash of the Titans” remake and, recently, making deliriously watchable the magician thriller “Now You See Me” — a film as insane and nonsensical as 30 Besson efforts. He’s hard at work on the more modest-sounding spy-soccer hooligan comedy “Grimsby,” co-written and starring Sacha Baron Cohen.
3. Pierre Morel
Morel was a cinematographer on “The Transporter” who Besson bumped up to handling 2004’s acrobatic “District B13,” the movie that introduced parkour to cinema (and much of the world). His shots are clean — so clean that they sometimes showed the same shocking parkour moves from multiple angles. He then graduated to a slightly less active film, “Taken,” which introduced the idea of Liam Neeson as an aging ass-kicker. No matter how casually racist and alarmist the content, “Taken” is tight and brutal. Morel adopted a more outwardly silly tone for “From Paris with Love” — the one with a bald, earringed John Travolta — before trying to be slightly serious in the Sean Penn vehicle “The Gunman,” which couldn’t rectify the preachy with the stupid.
4. James Mather and Stephen St. Leger
Mather and St. Leger have only directed one film for Besson, and only St. Leger has directed another, 2004’s “Prey Alone.” Their lone effort, “Lockout,” known to some of us as the catchier “Space Jail” — Guy Pearce plays a combination of Snake Plissken and John McClane sent to save the president’s daughter from a prison riot in space — isn’t particularly well-made, but it moves along and knows how to revel in its stupidity. And most importantly it gets a great turn from Pearce, chain-smoking and grouching his way into becoming the best Bruce Willis since Bruce Willis.
For his attempt at turning aging Kevin Costner into the next Liam Neeson, Besson reached out to America, snatching up McG, aka Joseph McGinty Nichol. McG had made a big splash with the revved-up “Charlie’s Angels,” which, along with its sequel, had an insanity that is often Bessonesque. Attempts to diversify his field, with the weepie “We Are Marshall,” the leaden “Terminator Salvation” and the deeply unfunny “This Means War,” found him fumbling. He didn’t get his game back for “3 Days to Kill,” which stumbles through multiple tones as well as a needlessly byzantine plot that tried to marry darkly comic murders with straight-faced father-estranged daughter (played by Hailee Steinfeld) bonding. It’s as sleepy as Costner’s sleepy turn.
6. Camille Delamarre
As past Besson directors moved on, he tried his hand at some newbies. Delamarre is his latest go-to, and he’s not very distinctive. “Brick Mansions,” the English-language remake of “District B13,” knows to keep the cuts patient for the parkour, but it otherwise looks slapdash and amateurish. The new “The Transporter: Refueled” is all quick cuts and shaky cam, plus inserts of the camera spinning robotically around smackdowns that make them look like video game segments. He doesn’t have Leterrier’s skill at filming the ridiculous, with so many cuts of new lead Ed Skrein going from motorboat to kicking through the window of a car that you can see all the seams. You laugh at rather than with it.
7. Olivier Megaton
Great name; lousy filmmaker. A second-unit director on the Besson-produced “Hitman,” he moved to the lax “Colombiana” before helping destroy the “Taken” series with two increasingly wan sequels. “Taken 3” barely even tries to conceal that its up-in-years star can’t do the crazy stunts, and it can’t transcend the overly-plotty and uninvolving screenplay (which, by the way, featured not a single person being taken). He and Delamarre are the type that make Besson’s franchise output look like dispassionate cash-grabs, tarnishing a brand that should revel in silliness, not provoke cruel giggles.
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