If there’s a single mind behind the frenzied pacing, gonzo action and crackpot gags of “Taken,” “Unleashed” and the three “Transporter” films, it clearly belongs to writer-producer Luc Besson.
Rare in a country like France, where the auteur is king, Besson has shaped EuropaCorp’s productions with his own visual and narrative touch — a touch he invented, and perfected, during three decades as a helmer.
Like lots of breakout filmmakers, Besson busted onto the scene in his mid-20s with an original, stylistically innovative first feature, “The Last Combat” (1983). Set in a postapocalyptic France reminiscent of “Mad Max,” the film follows a ragged warrior fighting for food and fuel in a world where humans have lost the capacity of speech.
Besson’s debut revealed elements that would resurface throughout his career: roving widescreen compositions, stoic protags driven by an obsession that may ultimately do them in, comic digressions and other slapstick hijinks and image-rich storylines that glide forward without a hitch.
Compared with the chatty, existentially heavy fare that had been the norm for debuting Gallic directors since the 1950s New Wave, Besson proved himself to be a young auteur of a different, and clearly more bankable, variety. Alongside fellow helmers Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax, he coined a markedly 1980s style that the French critics sarcastically dubbed the “Cinema du look.”
While the success of “The Last Combat” was limited, Besson’s sophomore effort, “Subway” (1985), was his first commercial hit. The film was something like an underground urban Western, its freewheeling narrative perhaps the earliest example of EuropaCorp’s homegrown blend of action and humor, in which the story’s less about the what than about the how you get there.
The popularity of “Subway” allowed Besson to make his dream project, “The Big Blue” (1988), a script he began writing in his teens. Inspired by the feats of free-diver Jacques Mayol, the pic used epic underwater photography to relate the athlete’s lifelong rivalry with Italian diver Enzo Maiorca (Jean Reno). It scored 10 million local admissions.
Besson would next make his most mature and technically mastered work, “La Femme Nikita” (1990). Although the film’s lone-assassin plot is firmly grounded in Hollywood lore, its eclectic mix of domestic drama and realistic action, not to mention a surprisingly gruesome third act and downbeat ending, revealed it to be more distinctly European than wannabe American. A stylish genre film with arthouse sensibilities, “Nikita” would influence the coming generation, from Tarantino onward.
The subsequent “The Professional” (1994) transplanted Reno’s “Cleaner” character to a more U.S.-friendly, Gotham-set story that marked Natalie Portman’s screen debut. Besson followed, three years later, with the ambitious sci-fi actioner and Bruce Willis starrer “The Fifth Element” (1997), his most popular and financially lucrative venture, and then “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc” (1999), which flopped.
Afterward, Besson set up his EuropaCorp shingle and would not return to the helm until 2005’s bluesy, black-and-white Parisian fantasy “Angel-A.” The next year saw him helming part one of the animated “Arthur” trilogy, whose second installment hits screens in early December.
Although Besson has nowadays swapped his director’s chair for the producer’s office, his funky and original aesthetic continues to be felt in EuropaCorp’s films, making him one of the rare, modern examples of a venerable “producer-auteur.”