VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and Action, Suggestive Material and brief Language

Directed by: Luc Besson

Written by: Luc Besson

(based on the VALERIAN AND LAURELINE comics by Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mezieres)

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer, John Goodman, Elizabeth Debicki & Sam Spruell

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS has been a passion project for director/writer Luc Besson since the late 90s. While filming THE FIFTH ELEMENT, Besson believed that a VALERIAN adaptation would be unfilmable because special effects still needed to catch up to the ambitious material. James Cameron’s AVATAR (which had a mediocre plot, but sported fantastic visuals) served as the signal Besson needed. VALERIAN is based on the 1960s French comics VALERIAN AND LAURELINE, predating STAR WARS and serving as a massive influence on loads of sci-fi material that arrived in its wake. Besson’s big screen adaptation of VALERIAN has phenomenal visuals and is guaranteed to gain a cult following over time (much like THE FIFTH ELEMENT), but it suffers from undeniable flaws (much like THE FIFTH ELEMENT).

Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are special agents in the 28th century. Their latest assignment has them guarding Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) as he gives a special conference on Alpha, a vast space station that houses millions of alien races and has many strange cultures. Valerian and Laureline soon find themselves on a rescue mission when Filitt is kidnapped by an unknown race of aliens. This leads the two special space agents into Alpha’s most dangerous areas as they attempt to save Filitt, possibly thwart a terrorist plot, and discover long-buried secrets.

VALERIAN is visually phenomenal. While THE FIFTH ELEMENT has aged a bit in its computer effects and looks pretty cheesy today, it’s impossible to imagine VALERIAN looking like its dated at any point in the near future. The effects in this movie are fantastic and you will believe that the human characters are interacting with many different monsters. The design of Alpha itself is insane as we see underwater worlds, various otherworldly climates, and (of course) a BLADE RUNNER-esque city of humans. One chase sequence has Valerian jumping from alien climate to alien climate and is absolutely breathtaking to behold. Taken on sheer spectacle, VALERIAN is amazing.

That’s not to say that this film is perfect though. The visuals, action sequences, and goofy sense of humor are on point, but VALERIAN struggles when it comes to plot and performances. The main plot takes a little too long to fully take off because the audience is treated to two different prologues. One of these prologues is a blast to behold as Valerian and Laureline infiltrate an interdimensional market to take down a space pirate (featuring an all-too-brief role from John Goodman as the blubbery alien bad guy). The prologue before that prologue reveals too much of VALERIAN’s hand, so that later revelations which are played for surprises wind up not being surprising at all. This results in the plot feeling predictable and by-the-numbers, even though we get many fun subplots of Valerian and Laureline encountering different alien threats.

In a movie that revolves around two special space agents, it’s also sad to say that VALERIAN’s two leads occasionally stumble. Dane DeHaan can be phenomenal in the right roles, but he seems a bit uncomfortable here and has some wooden line delivery early on. This is especially true in scenes where he’s trying to woo Laureline, played by a much-more assured and comfortable Cara Delevingne (who’s significantly stepped it up after her dull performance as Enchantress in last year’s SUICIDE SQUAD). The chemistry between DeHaan and Delevigne is there as partners, but feels terribly forced in a romantic subplot. Their unbelievable love-interest chemistry ensures that certain moments are eye-rollingly stale.

On a positive note, VALERIAN features colorful supporting characters who chew the scenery in over-the-top ways. Clive Owen is fun as the stern commander, even though his character is unconscious for a majority of the film’s running time. Ethan Hawke shows up as a flamboyant pimp, while Rihanna is memorable as a shapeshifting stripper. Besides the already mentioned John Goodman in a voice role, Rutger Hauer briefly shows up for a cameo. The non-speaking alien characters are pretty damn enjoyable too, with a hungry monster king receiving one of the funniest scenes in the entire film.

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS works as sci-fi spectacle with a goofy sense of a humor, but stumbles in its on-and-off chemistry between the two leads, a very predictable plot that offers little in the way of surprising revelations, and annoying attempts at unearned emotional moments. However, there’s more than enough entertainment value here to make Luc Besson’s latest offering worth a recommendation. If you’re a fan of THE FIFTH ELEMENT, I imagine that you’ll likely be a fan of VALERIAN too. This is far from Besson’s best, but VALERIAN is guaranteed to receive a passionate cult following and reputation in the years to come. This is the new generation’s FIFTH ELEMENT.

Grade: B

THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sci-Fi Violence, some Sexuality and brief Nudity

Directed by: Luc Besson

Written by: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen

Starring: Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Charlie Creed-Miles, Brion James, Tricky, Tommy Lister Jr., Christopher Fairbank & Lee Evans

There are people who love THE FIFTH ELEMENT and people who loathe it. This sci-fi cult classic is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary and has been enjoying a big screen revival at various movie theaters. Having never actually sat through this entire movie (I know, shame on me) and being (mostly) a fan of director/writer Luc Besson, I decided to give his odd opus a go. THE FIFTH ELEMENT is goofy and some elements haven’t stood the test of time, but it remains fun and humorous nonetheless.

In the distant future of 2263, an ancient prophecy is coming to light. The fate of the world is near as a planet-sized evil approaches Earth. The only thing that can stop the deadly giant orb has come in the form of four ancient stones and a gibberish-speaking alien, nicknamed Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). When Leeloo crashes through the roof of down-on-his-luck cabbie Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), this average guy is sucked into an adventure that involves a rogue priest (Ian Holm), an obnoxious radio host (Chris Tucker), a violent alien race, and evil weapons-dealer Zorg (Gary Oldman).

THE FIFTH ELEMENT doesn’t take itself seriously at all. The film opens with a prologue that nicely sets up the main premise, but also includes loads of comic relief and silly-looking aliens (they appear like they inspired the a few designs in 2005’s HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY). There’s a constant sense of cheesiness throughout the film that feels deliberate and there’s rarely (if ever) a dramatic moment. Besson’s focus is on fun and he nails that aspect of this film, even if others fall by the wayside.

The visuals, aided by many special effects, bring an imaginative vision of the distant future to life. There are space cruises, layers upon layers of traffic (cars literally passing above each other), and compact apartments (that push furniture into the walls). Besson’s cinematic universe is cool to look at, but not all of the effects hold up. This is mainly true of CGI that looks very dated. The menacing evil planet appears to have come out of a Syfy Channel movie, though to be fair it was created with 1997 computer graphics. The evil alien race is brought to life through a combination of occasionally crappy CG, but mostly giant rubber suits that look pretty damn good.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT has two modes: action-packed and funny. It’s occasionally the former, until it reaches the end of a chaotic crescendo on a massive spaceship that sees many subplots colliding. The latter is a constant in the film as even gunfights have laugh-out-loud bits. One running joke about Korben’s nagging mother never ceases to be funny, while there are visual gags that are sure to guarantee a few giggles. Another series of mishaps at a space airport (in which many people claim to be Korben) is easily my favorite comedic scene in the entire film. With so much humor and action set pieces, the plot seems almost inconsequential. That’s a plus in this case, because there are convenient developments, half-assed mythologies and minor plot holes.

As far as performances go, everybody seems to be having a good time and that comes across in their acting. Bruce Willis plays Korben with his usual tough guy persona, serving as both an action hero and delivering well-timed comic zingers (a few of his best bits were improvised). Model-turned-actress Milla Jovovich gives probably the best performance of her career as an incoherent alien. Though she gets a few lines of English as the plot goes on, Jovovich’s heroine mainly acts through body language and facial expressions.

On the supporting side of things, Ian Holm is goofy as an exposition-spouting priest and occasionally gets to deliver a good laugh. Gary Oldman is allowed to ham it up as the villainous Zorg and effectively steals the show. Oldman’s over-the-top baddie gets many great scenes and I sort of wish that he had been the main antagonist, as opposed to the badly animated fiery planet that’s heading towards Earth. Mark my words, Chris Tucker (who usually annoys me to no end) actually made me laugh frequently throughout this film. This and the RUSH HOUR series might be the only films where Chris Tucker is actually funny. So there’s something to be said for that alone.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT suffers from cheesy CGI, muddled writing, and convenient plot developments. Still, this is a fun watch for viewers who are craving sci-fi entertainment that doesn’t take itself too seriously in any way, shape or form. Action and laughter are the two main elements of THE FIFTH ELEMENT. For the most part, it delivers both of those in spades. If this sounds up your alley, then this love-it-or-hate-it sci-fi cult classic may just be for you. You won’t know quite where you stand on it until you’ve seen it.

Grade: B

FROM PARIS WITH LOVE (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence throughout, Drug Content, Pervasive Language and brief Sexuality

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Directed by: Pierre Morel

Written by: Adi Hasak & Luc Besson

Starring: John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Kasia Smutniak, David Gasman, Richard Durden, Yin Bing & Amber Rose Revah

Sometimes, a movie surprises the hell out of you. That’s exactly what happened with FROM PARIS WITH LOVE for me. Every bit of marketing indicated this movie would suck and its original January release certainly didn’t do it any favors. John Travolta’s output during the 2000’s has been mediocre at best (WILD HOGS, anyone? What about OLD DOGS?) and Jonathan Rhys Meyers isn’t exactly a huge leading man on the big screen. This movie also didn’t bank at the box office and plans of a sequel have recently been scrapped. I stuck in this film with expectations of a cheesy action flick and it’s actually pretty damn good. While this movie definitely falls into the cheesy action genre, the script packs in numerous surprises, performs a balancing act of being comical and serious, and had me walking away very satisfied. I can’t believe I’m saying this but FROM PARIS WITH LOVE is one of the more underrated action efforts of the 2010’s.

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James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) works as the personal aide to a U.S. ambassador in France, but also has a side-gig as a rookie CIA agent. Sick of swapping license plates and planting microphones, Reese finally receives a long-awaited promotion…but it comes with a catch. That catch is loose-cannon partner Charlie Wax (John Travolta). Wax’s methods are unconventional to say the least and he doesn’t exactly follow the rulebook, but he gets results! This means that Reese soon finds himself in over his head as the mismatched pair of agents contend with a cocaine ring and a terrorist plot. All the while, Reese attempts to keep his fiancé Caroline (Kasia Smutniak) from leaving him after his latest assignment causes a string of misunderstandings. Paris is already a wild city…but it’s even wilder when Wax is in town.

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Strange as it sounds, the unlikely chemistry between Meyers and Travolta greatly benefit FROM PARIS WITH LOVE. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is most famously known for playing Henry VIII in HBO’s THE TUDORS and he doesn’t seem like a plausible action hero type, but that’s exactly what sells his role as nervous Reese. This rookie agent is entirely new to the world of cocaine, high-stakes espionage and large body counts, meaning that a lot of comedy comes from his shocked newbie reactions. Meanwhile, John Travolta chews the scenery like it’s going out of style as Charlie Wax. That could be taken as a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the viewer. As someone who can kick back and enjoy cheesy action films as quality entertainment, this was a very good thing for me. Wax’s loose-cannon attitude and even looser moral compass bring plenty of jokes and cool charisma, making him a lovable scumbag.

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The supporting cast is almost inconsequential. The only two side roles of note are Kasia Smutniak’s stint as frequently glimpsed fiancé Caroline and Richard Durden as bland Ambassador Bennington. The villains are pretty much one-note antagonists and hit a pretty dark cord considering the time that this film was made, along with the current state of the world. Terrorism isn’t necessarily exploited by PARIS’s screenplay though, because it follows the same path that many other action films from the 80’s and 90’s have already tread down. The difference here is that PARIS’s sense of humor, over-the-top action and jumps into serious tonal territory occasionally seem jarring, though the film performs an impressive juggling act for the most part.

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There’s also something to be said for an action movie that can make you laugh and simultaneously keep you on the edge of your seat with unexpected surprises. One plot revelation came out of nowhere and effectively punched me in the gut. The director and writers should to be commended for not backing out of their ballsy decision too. The film’s visuals look slick for the most part, though a brief bit of slow motion seemed like a sloppy post-production effect. The pacing is great as the film never slows down once Wax enters the story. The action itself is explosively awesome as gunfights, car chases and tense standoffs are executed with adrenaline-pumping energy.

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FROM PARIS WITH LOVE is far from perfect. It’s a cheesy action flick, meaning that there are a few lapses in logic, some well-trodden clichés, and stretches of seriousness that don’t fully fit within the explosive entertaining atmosphere. Still, the film remains a lot of fun and left me very satisfied. It’s an action movie with comedy, twists, good chemistry between its two leads, loads of fun, and plenty of action. What more could you really want from a movie like this?

Grade: B

TRANSPORTER 3 (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Action and Violence, some Sexual Content and Drug Material

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Directed by: Olivier Megaton

Written by: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen

Starring: Jason Statham, Natalya Rudakova, Francois Berleand, Robert Knepper, Jeroen Krabbe & David Atrakchi

The first two TRANSPORTER films are enjoyable guilty pleasures that took over-the-top silliness and goofy action to absurd heights. These may not be the greatest films in the world, but they entertainingly showcase Jason Statham’s abilities to kick ass six ways to Sunday. Another installment in the TRANSPORTER series wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but due to poor pacing and shaky directing, this third (and final) Statham entry is a disappointingly dull note to go out on. TRANSPORTER 3 has a few cool ideas and the best villain of the series thus far, but lacks in pretty much every other department…including the most important element of this series: the action!

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Frank Martin has moved back to France and been forced into taking a dangerous new job. Frank’s new client is known simply as Johnson and he’s a very bad man. With a mysterious package and a red-headed young woman in tow, Frank is given alternating coordinates and doesn’t know precisely what he’s transporting, why he’s being forced into doing this and who Johnson is. What Frank does know is that he’s wearing a locked bomb bracelet that will explode if he steps 75 feet away from his vehicle and other people seem intent on putting a deadly stop to his journey. Frank decides that it’s time to violently transport his latest cargo, find out what’s really going on and put a stop to Johnson…after he’s found a way to remove the explosive fashion statement strapped around his wrist, of course.

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There are good ideas in TRANSPORTER 3. The concept of the bomb bracelet is actually pretty cool and serves as a gimmick for some interesting scenes, especially when someone decides to try to hijack Frank’s car. Its creator is the enjoyably scummy Johnson who’s played very well by Robert Knepper. Personally, I think Johnson is the best villain of the TRANSPORTER series thus far…with sexy gun-toting Lola as a close second. It’s a shame that Knepper’s colorful baddie is wasted in the worst Statham entry of the series…which is only marginally better than the lame-brained Statham-free REFUELED. Speaking of Statham, he’s back in full form as Jason Statham…er, I mean Frank Martin. He does what he can to improve the film, but there are a surprising amount of exposition-filled scenes that don’t feature Statham at all in this third outing.

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TRANSPORTER 3’s big problems lie purely in the long running time and piss-poor directing. This is the longest entry in the series and boy, does it feel like it. The reason that the first TRANSPORTER worked so well was that it focused entirely on action with a threadbare excuse for a plot connecting the exciting stunt-filled sequences. TRANSPORTER 2 upped the ante with a storyline that veered into totally ridiculous, overblown territory and allowed for non-stop action as well. TRANSPORTER 3 is nearly two-hours long and features scenes of characters deciding whether or not to sign contracts, a ship populated by side thugs, and the returning Inspector Tarconi trying to piece together the clues behind Frank’s disappearance.

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Of those three time-consuming storylines that I just mentioned, Inspector Tarconi’s mystery was only subplot that was remotely necessary. In a better action movie, the stuff involving the ship thugs and contract signing would be summed up in one or two scenes. Co-writer Luc Besson decides to take up nearly 20 minutes of screen time with these moments. However, there are also a lot of other slow lagging spots between the action sequences as well. It certainly doesn’t help that Natalya Rudakova’s Valentina isn’t exactly a compelling love-interest/damsel-in-distress for the always stoic Frank Martin. She’s a marginal step above Shu Qi’s character in the first movie, but not by much. There’s also a forced moment in which Valentina and Frank have sex in a field…for no reason whatsoever.

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TRANSPORTER 3 spits in the face of logic and physics, but not nearly to the insanely hilarious degree as the previous two installments. To be fair, the only real way one could top the second film’s silliness would be to send Frank to outer space, but this third installment is lackluster and disappointing when compared to the first film’s plot too. I like the idea of the exploding bracelet, but the movie never truly exploits that for everything it’s worth. The action sequences and chase scenes are also soiled by quick editing, headache-inducing flashes, and shaky camera work. A few of these scenes might have been cool too (a showdown at a mechanic’s shop, the final fight between Frank and Johnson, and one particular chase) if the viewer was able to see what the hell was going on in them.

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To be fair, TRANSPORTER 3 has a few bright moments. Statham is doing his usual Statham thing, while Robert Knepper is the best villain that the series has ever seen. There’s also a bit where Statham drives sideways in between two semi-trucks like Clark Griswold on acid. The film has some stupid fun to be had, but this is mostly drowned out by horrible directing, incoherent editing, and a running time that’s far longer than it needs to be. If you’re in the need of some big dumb action films, I recommend sticking with THE TRANSPORTER 1 and 2 and skipping the lackluster later entries altogether.

Grade: C-

TRANSPORTER 2 (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 27 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violent Action, Sexual Content, partial Nudity, and brief Language

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Directed by: Louis Leterrier

Written by: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen

Starring: Jason Statham, Alessandro Gassman, Amber Valletta, Kate Nauta, Francois Berleand, Keith David & Jason Flemyng

2002’s THE TRANSPORTER was fun, simple, and stupid popcorn entertainment. TRANSPORTER 2 is wildly over-the-top, ludicrous, and separates itself from the original in many ways. You can tell this second installment had more of a budget behind it and packs plenty of wackiness into its short running time. Though Corey Yuen did not return to direct this sequel, he did help out with the fight choreography and it shows. TRANSPORTER 2 is every bit as enjoyable as its predecessor for reasons that you might not expect.

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After relocating to Miami, Florida, Frank Martin has taken on a different kind of transporting. He’s been hired to babysit Jack, the son of a rich government official. When a trip to the doctor’s office turns into a kidnapping, Frank finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place. Jack’s family believes that Frank took their son and the real criminal mastermind behind Jack’s kidnapping is attempting to kill the bad-ass transporter. However, we all know that Frank Martin doesn’t go down so easily. It’s time for Frank to violently rescue Jack and stop a bigger, more sinister plot before it’s too late.

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As entertaining and well-made as the action in the first TRANSPORTER was, you could tell that movie was made with the most modest of expectations in mind. The plot was a threadbare excuse to pack in as many fights, car chases and explosions as possible and it functioned purely on that adrenaline-pumping level. TRANSPORTER 2 has slightly grander aspirations and more ridiculous notions in mind. This sequel’s plot starts off relatively simple and silly, but quickly morphs into something entirely more complicated (code for even sillier) than the viewer might expect. The visuals appear slick and glossy this around, which makes for an overall better film to look at.

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Jason Statham slips right back into the role of Jason Statham…er, I mean Frank Martin with ease. You get a sense that there’s a soft side to this titular bad-ass. He doesn’t avoid impaling a goon with a table in plain view of a small child, but he genuinely cares about Jack and his family. Frank is the gruff Transporter with a heart of gold. He’s essentially a low-rent, rough around the edges 007 type without an MI-6 behind him. As far as side characters go, Hunter Clary is okay as the kid-in-distress and Amber Valletta is decent enough as his worried mother. The villains are slightly more developed this time around too. Alessandro Gassman is enjoyable evil as the foreign-accented Gianni, but the real scene-stealer is Kate Nauta’s Lola (his second-in-command). She’s a sexy villainess who enjoys being scantily clad in revealing lingerie and firing dual machine guns at anything that moves. Besides being great eye candy, Lola is also a genuine threat to Frank.

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TRANSPORTER 2 is a full-fledged action-packed extravaganza from beginning to end. Galloping at a perfectly paced 87 minutes, the film only takes brief breaks between its stylized mayhem to offer up goofy exposition. Frank Martin continues to demolish the laws of physics by driving upside down through the air to rid his car of a bomb and using a fire hose to wipe out a gang of thugs. The film occasionally becomes eye-rollingly far-fetched in smaller details like bullets that somehow fail to penetrate through a wooden door. This utter desecration of believability becomes a hilarious benefit when a CGI plane hits the ocean at full force and manages to merely continue a fight sequence between an unscathed Frank and still alive Gianni. I actually had to pause the movie because I burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter when that sequence occurred.

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If you liked the first TRANSPORTER, you’ll probably have a great time watching this preposterously plotted sequel. Co-writer Luc Besson fully embraces the ridiculously silly potential in the TRANSPORTER series with this second outing. The tone is wackier this time around and the non-Statham characters are slightly more developed. The action is far more overblown (in a good way) and the script goes into insanely dumb places (also a positive quality in a movie like this). There is no logic to be found here and its absence makes for an unabashedly silly good time! This is my favorite TRANSPORTER film!

Grade: B

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