Every Luc Besson Movie Ranked
Though La Femme Nikita would prove to be his breakthrough, Luc Besson’s feature debut, The Last Battle, presages almost everything about the filmmaker’s career and artistry. The stark black-and-white dystopian tale is an encompassing work, most notable for its scrappy, efficient, and hugely unpredictable world building, orchestrated by the young director. There was skepticism and adventure in that movie, and those would come to be the trademark characteristics of his oeuvre, though he’s not without his oddities.
No one speaks in The Last Battle and a similar tactic might have elevated the upcoming Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Like James Cameron, one of Besson’s rare genuine compatriots, the French-born filmmaker is best when he’s allowed to build planets, cities, species, and universes, but his insistence on writing many of his own films on his own has undermined much of his most entrancing work. When he worked with Robert Mark Kamen on The Fifth Element, the result was his most expansive and wondrous work to date. Then again, working with Michael Caleo brought upon The Family…
As a stylist, however, Besson has always left his mark, and he has a preternatural understanding of pacing that rivals Michael Bay but is far more fluid, Cameron without the classicism and charisma. With Valerian hitting the multiplexes this weekend, I decided to rank all of Besson’s movies, from the bleak desert-world of The Last Battle to the crowded conglomeration of cultures in Valerian. For the record, I didn’t count The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (only released on DVD in America) or his documentary Atlantis (hard to get a copy of these days) but all of his other features, even The Messenger, are here. Enjoy!
13. The 'Arthur' Trilogy
Besson arrived at adapting his children’s tale about a young boy who dreams up the monkey-like “Invisibles” or “Minimoys” without any knowledge of animation and his indifference shows. More than even The Family, these three movies feel powered solely by the hopes of engineering a hit for kids to look at vacantly rather than wrangle with genuine ideas. I won’t get into the weird undertones involving colonialism in Africa and the discomfiting use of race in the story in general, but it’s enough to say that it’s unpleasant for any movie, nevermind one meant primarily for young minds. A rare, but not unprecedented trio of fiascos.
12. 'The Family'
You can almost hear the pitch in your head: “Look, Robert DeNiro is the best fucking Italian assassin in the world and his family is badass too and they go into witness protection or something but are too badass for that even!” And that, more or less, is what you get with The Family, the movie that inexplicably first called the great Michelle Pfeiffer back to the fold. Besson works mostly with humor here and very little of it plays as much more than dismissed D-grade jokes from the early drafts for Analyze This or, more accurately, Analyze That. Soaked to the bone in clichés, the movie coasts by on its cast’s charms and the fleet-footed pacing, adding another unfortunate chapter to DeNiro’s post-1990s output.
11. 'The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc'
Those who did not like the modern-day liberties that Romeo + Juliet took from the classic texts of Shakespeare may want to avoid Besson’s take on Joan of Arc in total. True, there’s no Radiohead on the soundtrack and I did not spy one Hawaiian shirt amongst the cast, but The Messenger, in which Milla Jovovich plays God’s favorite French woman, is just as ridiculous a spectacle in its unhinged tonal shifts and ludicrous embellishments on the story as Baz Luhrman’s. For instance, within the first 15 minutes of the film, Joan’s beloved sister is raped, run through with a sword, and then becomes an object of necrophilia for godless English soldiers, acts that the film show’s little interest in beyond how they fuel Joan’s furious driver to battle and dismantle the English. A cast that includes Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich helps a little but not enough to validate sitting through 130-plus minutes of truly historic nitwittery.
A problematic movie, similar to La Femme Nikita and Valerian in that the delightful, noir-tinged imagery is betrayed by thoughtless, indirect dialogue. In this case, the odd relationship that blooms between Jamel Debbouze’s lovable oaf Andre and the titular giant force of nature, played by Rie Rasmussen, becomes a shambling reason for the narrative to continue on and for Besson to continue to craft these breathtaking compositions. Suicide and a need for attention and vindication found almost exclusively in men are subjects of interest but nothing sticks here other than the look of things. One has to wonder if that was all Besson, who also wrote and produced this alone, had in mind when he called action on the set.
09. 'The Big Blue'
This movie reminds me a lot of Ron Howard’s Rush, another amiable mediocrity about a truly gripping rivalry. Besson amplified the interpersonal melodrama of the dueling free divers Jacques Mayol and Enzo Molinari (in reality, Maiorca), played with engaging theatrical oomph by Jean-Marc Barr and Jean Reno, but he did little to lend insight into the nature of competition, outside of sex and scandals barely fit for soap operas. Again, to his benefit, this puppy flies and is never as boring as you might imagine a drama about two really good swimmers would be. Reno and Barr make the best of the circumstances but there’s a resounding flimsiness to the entire endeavor, and its ambitions outside of style go no further than the audacity of making a movie about competing divers. All that being said, this one deserves points for simply existing and not being a complete disaster.
08. 'La Femme Nikita'
Full confession: I’ve always thought this movie was a mess. It’s a good example of Besson’s style and tendency toward a breathless pace can overwhelm more emotionally sensitive material, such as a trained and mercilessly broken female convict turned into a killing machine, ordered around by condescending, withholding men. This would be a slam dunk for almost any director given leeway on the violence quotient and squib budget, but La Femme Nikita feels empty from minute one. The main character, portrayed with fearless physicality by Anne Parillaud, is utilized as a weapon by her handlers and that’s exactly what Bresson does, creating a few dazzling action sequences but a stultifying lack of intimacy. Even when revelations begin to hit the titular assassin, there’s no resonation, no sense of how the truth changes or challenges her worldview. As a mindless action film, it’s better than average but there was much more potential here than what’s on screen.
07. 'The Lady'
Working from Rebecca Frayn’s involving yet rigid screenplay. Besson does a dutiful job shining a light on an underreported chapter of Burmese history in The Lady. This 2011 drama focuses on Aung San Suu Kyi, the longtime Burmese democracy advocate and eventual politician, putting specific emphasis on her first return to Burma with husband, writer Michael Aris (David Thewlis), and uses their relationship for bearing as she ascends in rank amongst the people of Myanmar. On the whole, The Lady is standard-issue biopic fare, cut with a bit more rhythm and daring by Besson, but this is one of those cases where the importance of the subject matter slightly outweighs the lack of directorial bravado. That the movie is essentially a two-hours-plus showcase for Michelle Yeoh in the lead role should serve as reason enough, frankly.
06. 'Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets'
The kind of variety of textures, snorts and guffaws, shades of color, and made-up languages that populate this wild world is a prime example of why Besson has been around for so long. The staggering ineptitude of the dialogue and the clumsy way that the central relationship is built between Dane DeHaan’s gutsy space agent and his smart, scrappy partner (Cara Delevingne), whom DeHaan’s titular hero is trying to get to marry him during a space refugee crisis, makes it barely as surface-level serviceable as most big-screen hits these days. That being said, there’s a unique naiveté to Besson’s film that is infinitely preferable to the cynical posturing that has infected most big-studio summer fare.
05. 'The Last Battle'
Within the first 30 minutes of Besson’s deliriously creative dystopian debut, one man has killed off a local villain, pillaged from him, and escaped reprisal via a makeshift plane. The Last Battle, for all its limitations, is not boring and Besson, working with co-writer Pierre Jolivet, smartly makes the movie more about style, mood, and tone than narrative intricacy or payoff. The black-and-white cinematography, courtesy of the late DP Carlo Varini, who reteamed with Besson in Subway and The Big Blue, casts its own spell but the cast, including Jean Reno and Jolivet himself in the lead role, near-silently builds up an evocative world, using their physiques speak as much as the cock of the eyebrow or a well-timed snort. As calling cards go, it’s hard to top.
Easily the most interesting action movie Scarlett Johansson has appeared in, unless you count Under the Skin under this rubric. Johansson’s titular heroine begins to understand, well, everything, utilizing the effects of a neurological drug to break down the exterior world and dismantle the criminal agency that first abducted her and gave her the powers. Morgan Freeman is around to deliver exposition eloquently, and Oldboy himself Choi Min-sik is a fantastic lead nemesis. The action is gravity-defying and wildly imaginative, to the point that Lucy becomes borderline experimental in its use of montage and spectacle. If you try to keep ahold of the story and don’t get drunk on Besson’s nonsense, it’s laughable fun at best. For those who have no issue drinking Besson’s kool-aid, however, this 2014 hit is a rare jolt of ecstatic filmmaking energy in a desert of stiff, predictable explosion porn.
An impulsive delight. Besson’s second film opens with a tuxedo-clad Christopher Lambert trying to search for the right music to outdrive a car full of armed goons who are after him, and this is not the only thing that seemingly connects Subway to Baby Driver. Lambert’s excitable hero-lunatic goes onto crash his car into the subway station and on goes this prime example of Besson’s loyalty to the so-called cinema du look movement. I’m sure there’s a manifesto and I’m sure it’s great but the sheer thrill of this batshit, opus outpaces the artistic credos that apparently spawned it. Secret, controversial government documents, band practice with Jean Reno, and a rollercoaster romance with Isabelle Adjani all figure heavily into Besson’s 1985 whatsit, and thankfully, Besson hardly slows down to try to make much sense of it all. The result is pure radical sensation, constant mindless amazement fronted by the man who would become the Highlander.
02. 'Leon the Professional'
A New York sonnet, laced with adrenaline and strychnine. Besson hit a rare emotional peak with this tale of a simple yet brilliant hitman, played by Jean Reno in a career-defining performance, who befriends and becomes de-facto protector of a young woman (Natalie Portman) whose whole family was executed by crooked cops. Portman and Reno smartly push the boundaries when the orphan and amateur assassin begins to have romantic feelings for the titular killer, giving an uneasy aftertaste to the otherwise sweet relationship. The showdown between Leon, his charge, and a cadre of dirty cops, led by Gary Oldman in another career-defining performance, is a dizzying, elating master class in orchestrating an emotionally resonate gunfight. In high school, it was the coolest movie I’d ever seen. A few decades later, its coolness has faded a bit but it’s roaring emotional punch remains.
01. 'The Fifth Element'
A genuine space odyssey, manned by Bruce Willis’ impossibly named Korben Dallas and Milla Jovovich’s gibberish-speaking Leeloo in search of The Thing That Will Save The World. Willis’ exasperated smartass-brute is the ideal Besson hero, lobbing around one-liners with skill while also easily handling the physical demands of the action theatrics. And boy oh boy, there is some theater, including a truly epic opera scene intercut with Leeloo handling a battalion of ugly alien combatants. Years and years later, this is the Besson movie that strangers always want to talk about, relatives return to, and friends bicker about rank in the canon of science-fiction film classics. Rarely, however, do you encounter someone who dismisses its place in that haloed canon.