There's no faulting Luc Besson's commercial instincts. But anyone over age 12 watching the Besson-penned "Taxi 4," barely three months after "Arthur and the Invisibles," could justifiably assume he's aiming about as high as a limbo bar.

There’s no faulting Luc Besson’s commercial instincts. But anyone over age 12 watching the Besson-penned “Taxi 4,” barely three months after “Arthur and the Invisibles,” could justifiably assume he’s aiming about as high as a limbo bar. Level of comic finesse in this strident yet boring tale of what happens when a Belgian gangster escapes in Marseilles makes the Three Stooges look like thesping peers of the Barrymores. Still, Besson and helmer Gerard Krawczyk have another inexplicable hit on their hands.

A dumb popular comedy should feature at least a few gags worth repeating in the schooyard, but this time the cupboard is almost bare. Affection for recurring characters will carry the day for enthusiastic local auds if boffo opening numbers — 1 million tickets sold in the first three days– are any indication. The Valentine’s Day release is on nearly 20% of Gaul’s screens.

If the occasional multiple-car pileup, confiscated dope smoked in police station restrooms by a Rasta cop or rocket fired inside a Cannes villa seem the stuff of great escapist comedy, get thee to France.

Police Commissioner Gilbert (Bernard Farcy, pulling out all the stops) mistakes a hotel chambermaid for a terrorist and pegs soccer star Djibril Cisse (himself) as a possible illegal immigrant. Benign authority figure Gilbert is none too bright; ditto his staff of cartoonish plainclothes cops.

Sweetly bumbling Emilien (Frederic Diefenthal) works hard but may be too nice a guy to be a sharp policeman. He and cool cabbie Daniel (Samy Naceri) are best friends whose young sons play together. Daniel’s road-savvy persona has always been built on his unflappable demeanor, but he barely seems to have a pulse.

Before being extradited to Africa to stand trial, a notorious Belgian criminal (Jean-Luc Couchard, exuding screw-loose energy) is entrusted to the Marseilles police department for less than 24 hours. But the wily crook convinces Emilien he’s a lowly Belgian embassy employee who got railroaded by the brilliant master criminal.

Meanwhile, Emilien’s statuesque wife (Emma Sjoberg-Wyklund), assigned to infiltrate the Belgian’s gang of ragtag toughs, is working so far undercover even her hubby’s not in on it.Once the deadly perp is at large again, all hell should break loose; instead, we get Hades Lite. Finale is inspired (minus any inspiration) by Brian De Palma’s “Scarface.”

Naceri, currently incarcerated for assault and ungracious behavior, soldiers on but looks unwell. Location work in Marseilles, Monaco and Cannes is underwhelming, stunts are just adequate and humor ranges from passably silly (car sickness! doors slamming into noses! hair on fire!) to heavy-handed.

Taxi 4

France

Production

An ARP Selection release of a EuropaCorp, ARP Selection, TF1 Films Prod., Apipoulai production. (International sales: EuropaCorp, Paris.) Produced by Luc Besson, Michele Petin, Laurent Petin. Executive producer, Didier Hoarau. Directed by Gerard Krawczyk. Screenplay, Luc Besson.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Pierre Morel; editors, Christine Lucas Navarro, Frederic Thoraval; music, Tefa, Doudou Masta, Weallstar-Da Octopusss; production designer, Hugues Tissandier; costume designer, Fabienne Josserand; sound (Dolby Digital), Francois-Joseph Hors; assistant director, Alain Artur; casting, Swan Pham. Reviewed at UGC Odeon, Paris, Feb. 15, 2007. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Samy Naceri, Frederic Diefenthal, Bernard Farcy, Emma Sjoberg-Wyklund, Edouard Montoute, Jean-Christophe Bouvet, Jean-Luc Couchard, Francois Damiens, Mourade Zeguendi, Djibril Cisse.

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