Thursday, September 1, 2011

Every Cataleya Has Its Thorn

COLOMBIANA

In Colombiana (that's Spanish for female Colombian, by the way--Spanish having masculine and feminine nouns), you have to accept a lot of things being plausible in order to be believable.  You have to believe nine-year-old girls can do parkour over the roofs of Bogota.  You have to believe women can execute (in every meaning of the word) great hit jobs with the greatest of ease.  If you're willing to accept a lot of things that won't make sense, Colombiana may be entertaining...not great, or intelligent, but entertaining in a witless and trashy way. 

Little Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg) is your average eight-year-old child in Columbia: her parents are in the drug trade.  After her parents are murdered by Marco (Jordi Molla) by orders of Don Luis (Beto Benites) she makes a daring escape to the U.S. embassy.  Giving information to the American authorities given to her by her father, she is taken to America, but once she gets here she makes another daring escape to Chicago.  There, she knows she has an uncle, Emilio (Cliff Curtis).  Cataleya has but one goal: to be a killer, especially of Don Luis and Marco.  Her uncle, however, wants her to be a smart killer, so he convinces her to go to an expensive private school (by committing a random act of violence in front of witnesses).

Moving on fifteen years later.  Cataleya (Zoe Saldana) is now a professional assassin, but with every kill she leaves tell-tale signs that the killings (twenty-three so far) are the work of the same person.  FBI Agent Ross (Lennie James) is determined to find this killer, searching for "him" after "he" manages to kill a witness held in intense lock-up.  Cataleya, however, is still set on revenge against Don Luis and Marco, and these calling cards are a way to gain publicity to draw information as to their whereabouts.  They are actually under the protection of the CIA in New Orleans, and once they discover she is still around, Marco begins a hunt for her.  Now, though she is a professional hit-woman, she also has a tender side, having an affair with Danny (Michael Vartan), an artist who has no idea who she really is.  Eventually, Cataleya gets Ross to help her find her enemies by putting the squeeze on both him and CIA Agent Richard (Callum Blue), where the two rivals have an explosive confrontation.

Colombiana is predicated on the audience accepting a whole group of completely unbelievable things being plausible, let alone realistic.  Take just the opening: little Cataleya goes from being a little schoolgirl into the Latin American version of Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass minus the costume.   The ridiculousness of believing a little girl can move over the rooftops of Bogota like she's a stunt double on Fast Five is only the beginning of Colombiana's stretching our accepting the storyline. 

A major piece of action in the film is when we see her carrying out a hit for the first time, executing an elaborate hit job with not just pitch-perfect precision, but with every circumstance working out exactly right to aid her in this daring plan.  In order for the entire sequence to make sense, we have to believe that not only does Cataleya make absolutely no mistakes, but that she has planned the actions of everyone else who unwittingly aids her, right down to the millisecond.  This is a lot to ask of us, but the fact that Robert Mark Kamen and Luc Brisson's script keeps doing this over and over again turns Colombiana from action to parody to farce.  She soon turns into this super-assassin, never making mistakes at every turn, and it does become hard to build suspense as to whether she will succeed if everything not only goes right but also goes her way.

Some things in Colombiana go beyond not making sense to being downright insane.  Little Cataleya has only one goal: to have her uncle train her to be a killer.  Uncle Emilio doesn't have any problem training a child to be a killer, but wants her to go to school to learn to be a smart killer (I figure how to plan these exaggeratedly grand hits).  He does so by pulling out his gun out in the open street, shooting a car that passes by, horrifying bystanders, and then offering to take her shopping and for a hot dog.  No one seems to ask if Emilio is teaching her by example on how to be a dumb assassin by having witnesses or by killing (at the least assaulting) a perfect stranger.

There are some things that were a little hazy in Colombiana.  For a while I thought the people she was killing were tied to Don Luis.  It took a while to figure out that these were just contract hits.  I think the confusion came from the fact that she left her mark on her victims, which made it look like she was leaving messages for her archenemies.  All these contract hits actually serve to muddle her mission in getting revenge on Marco and Don Luis, and if Colombiana had kept the focus on this rather than trying to use them to get the FBI and CIA's attention, we might have had a much better film.  Why not have Cataleya work as a mole in the FBI to find where her enemies are?  That would have been a good twist.

Director Olivier Megaton (for a moment I thought that was a stage name because it seemed too good to believe Megaton directed an action film) can make interesting action scenes (except for the final confrontation when Cataleya lays siege to Don Luis' mansion, which was underwhelming in its excess), but when it comes to his actors, he doesn't appear to take all that much interest in development.  Worse is Vartan, who here is blank as the lovelorn Danny, as boring a character as we've seen in movies this year (side note: he reminded me of his role in Monster-In-Law, where there he played a remarkably dim and uninteresting character).  Molla has the sneer down pat (if Knight and Day was any indication, but since my first memory of him was as King Phillip II in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, I'm puzzled as to how someone who is a good actor appears relegated to villains and thugs). 

I digress to say that one thing that I find incredibly irritating is having a Maori play a Colombian.  Curtis' performance wasn't good to being with (the stab at the accent being at times exaggerated and forced) and his character popping in and out to give her assignments while disapproving of the goals she's been open about since she came to American (making Uncle Emilio contradictory: here's the next person you've been paid to kill, but you shouldn't try to kill the people who killed your parents).  My big thing is that when hiring someone to play a character of a certain nationality/ethnic background, one should try to hire someone of said nationality/ethnic group or someone close to it.  For example, there was some outcry when Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi played the Japanese title character in Memoirs of A Geisha, but in their defense not only is she a good actress but at least she belonged to the same ethnicity.  They didn't hire Jennifer Lopez to play Sayuri.  Likewise, hiring a New Zealander to play a Colombian is unfair to the hundreds/thousands of Hispanic actors who would have been more appropriate for the role. 

I do think Saldana is a good actress, and I congratulate her for having an action vehicle to show she can be a tough chick.  She could handle the action sequences well, and she got as much as the material allowed her to ring the few attempts at human drama out of the script.  However, one feels she deserves more and better.

Colombiana isn't a very good film given the far-fetched nature of the plot and its even more outlandish execution.  However, for being forgettable trash, if you don't think on it much you can stop and smell the cataleyas. 

DECISION: D+

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