March 10, 2009


Luc Besson's Growing Film Empire: The box-office successes of Europacorp's Taken and Transporter have put the studio on a fast-growth trajectory (Carol Matlack, 3/09/09, Business Week)

There's nothing like a recession to make Americans go to the movies. U.S. box-office receipts in February were a record $770 million. But the top-grossing movie of the month wasn't American—it was French. Taken, an action thriller starring Liam Neeson, is the first U.S. megahit for French film mogul Luc Besson. And Besson is working hard to make sure it won't be the last.

Besson, 49, best known until now as the director of such films as The Big Blue and The Fifth Element in the 1980s and 1990s, has worked mainly as a producer for the past decade. His Paris-based Europacorp (ECP.PA) studio posted $186 million in revenues last year, making it second only to Germany's Constantin Film (CFAG.DE) as Europe's largest independent studio.

Nearly one-third of Europacorp revenues come from box-office and DVD sales outside France—no surprise, since many of Besson's productions, including Taken, are in English. "We have a diplomatic passport; we're equally at ease in France, Japan, Germany, and the U.S.," Besson says in an interview at his headquarters in an elegant mansion a few blocks from the Champs-Elysées.

Just watched a curious film written by Mr. Besson: Banlieu 13 (aka District B13). It's like a Tom Tancredo wet dream turned nightmare.

In the Paris of 2010, the banlieu's have become so violent and dangerous that the authorities wall them up and withdraw all law enforcement personnel. Among those to be left behind are Leito, a sort of Robin Hood character waging a one man war on the drug baron, Taha Bemamud. The receding police cut a deal with Taha, jailing Leito and leaving his sister, Lola, enslaved by the gangster. But when Taha manages to get his hands on a neutron bomb, it's up to Leito to lead supercop, Captain Damien Tomaso, through Banlieu 13 to find the crook, defuse the bomb and free the sibling.

As with all Mr. Besson's movies, the action is well choreographed and sometimes thrilling. The opening chase in particular, with Leito running up walls and jumping from one tenement roof to the next, is worth watching. But, like many of these modern action movies, the running and the chop-socky are ultimately exhausting. Even coming in under 90 minutes, it's overlong. And such moments of exposition as there are only give the viewer a pause to consider how little there is going on beneath the surface. In effect, the film treats District B13 like the Roman Colosseum and us like voyeurs who should just sit back and enjoy the circus.

That makes it all the more jarring when the filmmakers tack on a preachy climax. Their political point may be valid, but their treatment of the subject has only served to undercut the message. They've just exploited District B13 as surely as the bad guys in the film. Strange.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 10, 2009 8:11 AM
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