Apparently, Columbians and several academic professors of Columbian descent have taken offense with the implications of the new action film from the stewardship of producer/co-writer Luc Besson (name a French action movie from the last 20 years and he’s likely had some hand in its development). The criticism being drawn is that Columbiana paints an unflattering picture of life in the South American country of the, almost, same name. I suppose that could be one charge against the film, but why be so limiting? Columbiana doesn’t make anybody look good, except for its star Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek), who could even stand to eat a few more sandwiches if you ask me.
10-year-old Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg, soon to breakout in a big way as Rue in next year’s Hunger Games) has the misfortune of watching her parents gunned down in front of her eyes. Her father ran afoul with the local drug lord, though we’re never told why. The drug lord’s main henchman, Marco (Jordi Molla), is looking for a microchip Cataleya’s father gave her. The girl stabs Marco in his hand and leaps out a window, darting through the streets of Bogotá with goons chasing after. She makes it into a U.S. embassy and offers up this microchip filled with significant data (what we’re never told) as her passport to America. She eventually finds her way to Chicago, where she lives with her Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis, doing an accent on loan from Scarface). She wants to be a killer to avenge her parents, and her uncle agrees to help. Flash forward 15 years, and the adult Cataleya (Saldana) is working as a hired assassin. Her calling card is painting the cataleya orchid on the chests of her victims. Why? To attract attention from the right parties. She’s playing a dangerous game, as they always do, romancing an artist (Alias’ Michael Vartan), staying a step ahead of the authorities, and working her way up the Colombian goon food chain to get back at Marco and his boss.
This is one of the dullest action movies I’ve had the privilege of sitting through. I was actively counting down the minutes until it would be over about halfway in. It’s not because Columbiana is particularly bad, it’s just so staggeringly routine, a French-styled action thriller cobbled together from the leftover bits of previous French-styled action thrillers (take one part La Femme Nikita, some faux Professional gravitas, add some District B13 parkour, how about a few outlandish Transporter getaways, and bake for 30-40 minutes). There are a few decent action sequences but lots of time in between, time that lets the film’s momentum lag and allows space to start contemplating all the questionable aspects of the picture. There are so many lazy, recognizable pieces onscreen, from the idiot FBI agents, who are always late on the trail, to the underwritten romantic love interest who is only there for booty calls and to accidentally be endangered, to the oblique bad guys who are just bad, and sometimes rather bad at being bad. These guys couldn’t outrun a 10-year-old girl in Columbia, what makes me think they’ll get their act together and take out the adult version? And I absolutely hate it when movies, set in other lands, have the characters speak one line in their native tongue and then transition immediately into English spiced with the occasional foreign phrase. Columbiana has the notoriety of making me yearn for the days where a female assassin picking off men twice her size was a novel concept/image.
Turn after turn, beat for beat, the plot has characters behaving in contrived ways because the story would not work without these contrivances. Cataleya says she’s an expert killer, but much of her expertise involves an insane number of coincidences and variables that are impossible to account for. We’re talking about the bathroom habits of guards, the amount of coffee consumption, the placement of specific prison cells, the precise number of guards and their own attention spans, the fact that every single person would not notice security cameras being messed with, and even nitty-gritty stuff like the amount of water in a plastic cup and the exact size of a hole that would allow the right amount of liquid to drip and pool into a spoon. Not to mention the fact that this also works on the assumption that police finding a plastic cup and a spoon inside a security panel would not find any of this suspicious. What the hell? That’s not rigorous planning and flawless execution? That’s divine intervention and/or good luck. At least in other hitman films that would study their prey to make it look like an accident. Not our Cataleya. She’s been taking out goons and leaving her calling card in an effort to attract attention from a certain Columbian cartel leader. The problem is that it takes her 15 years and over 22 murders before her skills attract media attention. That’s a frustration that the Son of Sam might identify with. But how would murders in Chicago attract attention in Columbia?
The only thing noteworthy for an enterprise that is so inherently generic is the weird moments that catch your attention. First, Saldana’s emaciated, wiry, potentially malnourished frame certainly draws your attention. Has there ever been a skinnier assassin on screen? There’s a reason that this woman is able to constantly squeeze inside air ducts and other cramped spaces; she’s practically a contortionist with her body. Now the actress has always been petite but her diminished physicality makes everything she does seem so much less believable. When she’s slinking around with a humongous assault rifle, you’d think the rifle weighs more than Saldana. And then when she engages in hand-to-hand combat, you keep waiting for some bad guy to grab her by the scruff of her neck and just hold her at arm’s length, a safe distance from potential kicks. Despite all her steely glares, Saldana just does not come across as a believable hitman. To top that off, the way director Olivier Megaton’s (Transporter 3) cameras seem to worship her lithe, leggy body gives an unsettling support for Saldana’s teeny tiny body. Now people can be just as discriminatory toward thin people as they can be with the overweight, but with Columbiana, Saldana’s skinny body negatively impacts the reality of a story already riddled with logic gaps.
Then there’s Cataleya’s uncle who himself is something of a criminal under lord. She wants to grow up and be a killer and he just sort of shrugs and says, “Okay,” in the same tone of voice as if she had said she wanted to be a cowboy. But this is Movie World, a place where Cataleya’s father tells his driver, “We’ve got maybe an hour at most before he kills my whole family,” and then spends that fateful hour in such a lackadaisical fashion. He stops and walks around his car, sits down his little girl to have one last talk, waits for his wife to pack; there’s no sense of urgency here. People, you got one hour to supposedly live, you don’t pack a suitcase you just get in the car and run! But getting back to Uncle Emilio in Chicago. After he enrolls her in school, she’s sulky because she doesn’t think there’s anything she can gain from American education. She just wants to learn the ways of a killer. Her uncle, in a misguided feat to teach her a lesson, pulls out a gun and shoots randomly into a street, causing a car to crash and dozens of witnesses to huddle. “What can I teach you if you don’t learn?” he says, somehow giving the least inspiring case for public education. Then, preposterously enough, he and Cataleya scamper off at a mid-trot, casually eluding the police and all the dozens of witnesses who have clearly been able to see them this whole time.
Columbiana is one of those cookie-cutter action movies that just coasts on the apathetic expectations the audience has when they knowingly plop down money for a generic genre picture. And generic is certainly Columbiana. It’s a fairly standard revenge picture with some fairly standard action, devoid of any discernible kinetic style that might make for memorable sequences. Columbiana would not exist if it weren’t for a wealth of clichés and contrivances; the whole enterprise is bursting at the seams thanks to all its shortcuts in story and character. What does the title even mean? Is the film Columbia-esque? Is the depiction of skinny assassins and preposterous, illogical action supposed to be reminiscent of life in the country of Columbia? I think the film paints a worse picture of Chicago than Columbia, but at any rate this is an action thriller that can’t be bothered to thrill. Columbiana is generic to the point of desperation, where even the sight of Saldana in a skintight cat suit can become underwhelming in time, a tragedy of international proportions.
Nate’s Grade: C