The Reeler


May 25, 2007


Besson out of his depth in soggy redemption drama

Many derogatory epithets have been thrown at Luc Besson's filmography -- nakedly commercial, loud and flashy, lacking substance -- but up until now, "theologically unsound" probably hasn’t been one of them. In the years since Besson's last directorial effort (1999's unkindly received The Messenger), the director has retreated from hands-on work into producing, setting up a successful factory line of Euro-schlock action movies. Relatively few have made it to American shores -- although the deliriously over-the-top Transporter 2 suggests that's a shame -- but their immense international success means Besson never had to direct again. In that respect, Angel-A isn't a comeback; it's something he wanted to do.

More's the pity. Even at 90 minutes, Angel-A is an endless quagmire of redemptive stupidity. Like a literalized adaptation of the Depeche Mode chestnut "Personal Jesus," Angel-A invites us not just to reach out and touch faith, but to ogle its ass a little as well. At film's opening, André (Jamel Debbouzze) is deep in gangster cliché territory; having fast-talked his way into one too many loans he can't pay off, debtors are threatening to throw him off the Eiffel Tower, etc.

André runs to the American Embassy for protection, but his citizenship -- balanced against his Algerian origins, which are themselves unkindly analyzed by the Embassy staff as a reason to trust him -- doesn't get him very far. The casting of Debbouzze, straight from his turn as an embattled Algerian soldier in Days Of Glory, might point to -- if not exactly political sophistication -- a little ass-kicking, along with snippets of contemporary French racism, à la the Besson factory’s District B13. Alas: Rather than getting some guns and wreaking havoc while promoting progressive politics, André chooses instead to jump off a bridge. Seeing stranger Angela (Rie Rasmussen) plunge alongside him leads him to rescue her rather than letting them both drown. The title is fair warning: Angela is indeed an angel, sent to save schmuck André from himself. The leggy blonde pledges eternal fealty for his aid and sets off not just to cure his money woes but also teach him how to love himself.

Besson's reconfiguration of Christian tropes steers clear of Christ per se, instead offering up a benevolent God who sends down angels to help people perceive the good in themselves. As a result, Angel-A plays like so much New Age bullshit. Besson's action verve fails him in the dialogue-heavy sequences, leading to multiple, awkward two-shots of Angela offering up bromides until her mission is done. Inevitably, the pair fall in love, and the black-and-white photography willingly offers the film up for unflattering comparisons to Wings of Desire. The result is energy-free, risible on every level, and generally a disastrous change of pace for Besson. Dear Sir: When I was 11, your production design-heavy, content-free The Fifth Element blew my pre-pubescent mind. What happened? There is no place for you in the adult world, so get back already.

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