Review: ‘Columbiana,’ Sweet And Sour

A programming note: I’m finally on the list for movie screenings in the DC area, so expect more reviews. And feel free to treat these reviews both as guidance on whether or not to go see something, and as open threads for discussion over the weekend.

I went to see Colombiana, a movie about the CIA’s involvement in drug trafficking, the moral justifications for assassinating Bernie Madoff, and Zoe Saldana’s naughty bits, hoping for a slickly nasty little late-summer action movie in a year that’s been somewhat short on female heroines, and on gleeful darkness. There are bits and pieces of an entertaining film here, notably an interagency rivalry between the CIA and the FBI and a downturn revenge fantasy. But Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote the movie, and the delightfully named Olivier Megaton, who directed it, are probably right to trust that the sight of Saldana dancing braless in her apartment or setting off plastic explosives in her skivvies are selling points in and of themselves.

The movie begins with a reasonably promising, if somewhat overacted, premise. After watching her family murdered by a drug cartel, a young Cataleya (a promising Amanda Stenberg, who has a key role in the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games and is a welcome reminder that not only white little girls can get tough) gets herself to Chicago and into the home of her uncle Emilio. “I used to want to be Xena: Warrior Princess,” she tells him. “I want to be a killer. Will you help me?” “Sure,” he promises, rather jauntily. I was hoping we might be on the road to a non-white version of Big Daddy and Hit Girl’s relationship in Kick-Ass, a gleefully twisted but genuinely loving father-daughter training movie. But after buying her way into a private school and shooting up a passing car to illustrate why she should attend classes, the movie skips forward 15 years, denying us the privilege of seeing Cataleya learn her stuff, and into the much less creative pleasures of letting us see her deploy it as she goes after Don Luis, the man who had her family killed, and the people who worked for and with him.While Saldana’s total destruction of Don Luis’s compound (the man himself meets a singularly nasty, though mostly implied, end) is the climax of the movie, the really interesting fight in is between an Special Agent Ross, the FBI agent who is chasing Cataleya, and Special Agent Williams, the CIA liaison to Luis who wants to keep her as far away as possible from her intended victims. Ross (Lennie James, the victim of some unfortunate dialogue), starts out as a skeptic, insisting to the team investigating the 22 murders Cataleya’s committed, “We’re not looking for a woman. It’s not possible.” But he becomes a convert, particularly when Cataleya invades his home and threatens to blow him to kingdom come, or, alternatively, kill his whole family if he doesn’t help her get the information. “He’s protected by your government,” she complains. “Yes, but a part of my government I cannot reach,” he tells Cataleya, in a nice, however accidental, nod to the jostling between law enforcement agencies.

It’s one of the movie’s problems that Cataleya’s unpleasantness to Ross doesn’t feel particularly justified. But it helps that Williams is a uniquely nasty piece of work who is obstructing Ross’s investigation, so it’s a pleasure to see him get his comeuppance. When Cataleya puts a bullet through a picture of him in a grip-and-grin with President George W. Bush just to prove she can, it’s probably the most pointed political moment in the movie, and it reduces Williams to squeaky acquiescence.

The other political, if underdeveloped, subplot involves an assignment Cataleya takes to assassinate “the guy who was in the news for running a Ponzi scheme about a year ago.” Bernie Madoff is going to be a popular movie villain for a long time, whether he’s slickly played by Alan Alda in The Tower Heist, which I’m quite looking forward to, or as a grotesque lecher who makes the unwise decision to keep sharks under his patio as he is here. The fact that Cataleya’s committing murder for hire rather than being personally involved in the case, and that this is just another assignment rather than the main score, blunts some of the critique, tapping a vein of rage but just as quickly stanching it with cotton and gauze. It’s too bad. Don Luis and his slick-backed cronies are badly-dressed, if not totally indifferently acted, cliches. Great heroes deserve villains worth vanquishing, rather than leaving them to rot in Miami mansions.