Movie Review: Colombiana (PG-13)


Kernel Rating: whole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernal

Length: 107 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Appropriate for ages 13 and up. The order of the day is cold-blooded murder, with many bloody deaths portrayed and, in the logic of the movie, justified. Profanity is standard PG-13—in fact, possibly to achieve that rating, some obvious sound editing has been used to cover up all but one f-bomb. Similarly, the movie shows as much of our heroine’s skin as permitted while artfully avoiding nudity in the technical sense.

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Witness the making of a serial avenger. A young Colombian girl, Cataleya Restrepo (Amandla Stenberg), receives a baptism in blood when she is forced to watch her parents’ murder at the hands of thuggish underlings of her father’s drug-running boss. Confronted by the kingpin’s calmly creepy enforcer (Jordi Mollá), this innocent little girl suddenly and savagely wounds him, hisses a vow to avenge her family and escapes into the streets of Bogotá. Giving both crooks and cops the slip, she flees to America to stay with her uncle Emilio, (Cliff Curtis) himself a self-employed thug in Chicago. After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, Cataleya coolly declares her intention to become an assassin. Emilio agrees to help (Who can resist the earnest wishes of an adorable psychopath?), and 15 years on we find uncle and niece in an agent-freelancer arrangement oddly similar to the Danny Aiello/Jean Reno setup from Luc Besson’s 1994 film Léon: The Professional. (Besson co-wrote this screenplay with Robert Mark Kamen.) Emilio finds the jobs; Cataleya—grown into the stunning, slinky form of Zoe Saldana—finishes them. In her spare time she takes out the associates of Don Luis (Beto Benites), the drug lord who killed her parents, trying to draw him out of hiding, while a cantankerous FBI agent (Lennie James) investigates the murders, with few clues except the Cataleya orchid calling card left at the crime scenes.

Much like Cataleya, the film Colombiana has a sleek, alluring frame but an icy, empty heart. With earlier films La Femme Nikita and Léon, writer Besson solidified his specialization in the pre-wounded heroine, and like budding assassins Nikita and Mathilda (a role slam-dunked by a pubescent Natalie Portman), Cataleya seems cold and damaged even before she sees her parents murdered. It would be a lot easier to care about the character—and to share the anguish Saldana ably lets loose in later scenes—if we saw something of her former innocence and the ensuing transformation.

Zoe Saldana is a capable actress and sexy as hell, but only one of these gifts is put to good use here. Saldana spends a fair portion of the film in the distracting micro-dresses and sprayed-on catsuits of the trade. Fresh from the kill, her character unwinds by flipping on some blues music and shaking her Daisy-Duked hips, sucking on a lollipop. (Film note: The Japanese have a name for this kind of thing: “fan service”. These bits of stage business—blatantly provocative, nakedly (if not always nudely) sexual and utterly inconsequential—advance the story not a jot, but are a value-added gift to the panting male audience.) It’s all very empowering.

Also there to ease her tension is Michael Vartan as Cataleya’s understanding, doting sometime-lover—an action-movie staple traditionally played by an approachably sexy actress. In all but gender, Vartan fits the bill, and I’d say we’ve found his niche. (I never bought him as a cracker-jack field agent on Alias). While I respect the role reversal, other gender issues further subtract from the film’s substance. For instance, Ross, the crusty FBI agent, not only assumes the Orchid killer is a man (dismissible on its own as a tongue-in-cheek), but explicitly dismisses the idea it might be a woman, suggesting the mistake isn’t just a joke or evidence that Ross doesn’t get to the movies very often.

In general, I think we’re past the point where movies can be proud of themselves for showing a woman in the driver’s seat or pulling the trigger. But sadly—and unfortunately, still predictably—Colombiana ends up being a showcase for the heroine’s silhouette rather than her substance.