Sure, the idea that directors are always authors is a big ol' fallacy. What's true, though, is that, in the traditional system of commercial filmmaking, the director is presented with the greatest opportunities for authorship. Producing and screenwriting represent the authorship of ideas, projects or situations. Auteurism, as it's classically presented, is the director's struggle for the authorship of the image. So it's when working with strong producers or screenwriters—especially those that dabble in directing, whether it's Tsui Hark, Judd Apatow or Luc Besson—that a director shows what he or she is worth. The great game of "finding" the author usually involves imagining friends as combatants. Sometimes it means pitting a person against him or herself, as in the case of Apatow vs. Apatow: Apatow the director is often at the mercy of Apatow the producer and screenwriter. His is an authorship mostly on the level of situations, notions and casting, with the personal hovering at the level of dialogue and never quite filtering down into the images or the editing.
What I like about Luc Besson as a producer is his consistency. It's very comforting to think of the camera as a canvas or a notebook, but for the most part, what it really is a machine for the production of images. A film shoot exists to fill certain quotas set by the producers and the screenplay. Because Besson works in both capacities, and because his quotas are usually very similar, directors working for his Europacorp studio have a lot of opportunities to coast and a lot of opportunities to distinguish themselves. Every Besson production is in some ways the same, and every one of them is in some ways entirely the product of its director.
Two Luc Besson productions opened on Friday, both from stories by Besson, one in English and wide release, the other in French and limited release. Both are buddy action movies, both are somewhat entertaining, both are—like most Europacorp movies—exhiliratingly problematic, and neither is especially great. But one's certainly better than the other: with the exception of a roughly reel-long segment involving a cop in drag, a tranquilizer gun and a Van Gogh used as a combat prop, most of what makes District 13: Ultimatum any good can be traced back to Besson; what makes From Paris With Love the better movie belongs exclusively to its director, Pierre Morel. That long sequence I mentioned, most of which takes place in a shadowy club, makes it seem as though Patrick Alessandrin, Ultimatum's director, would be happier directing comic suspense or martial arts movies than the convulted buddy picture Besson's written for him. Morel, on the other hand, has an intensity of focus, a clarity to the images that obliterates the plot in favor of the scenes: the Pyrrhic victory of the director over the producer and the screenwriter. That's probably why Morel's no good at ending movies, an observation that I think at this point can be supported with quantifiable data. But what he's good at is keeping a steady rhythm of action: a footchase to a gunfight to a car crash to an explosion to a standoff, all at the same brisk clip. He's better at it than almost any action director working today, and he's certainly got a better sense of pace than his patron (how great would The Fifth Element have been if he could've kept up that metronomic match-cutting the whole time?).
Morel knows how to "keep things going," as they say, but he doesn't know how to slow down. That's why the ideal Morel protagonist is unstoppable; he can be diverted, even imprisoned, but he can't be overtaken. Liam Neeson, threatening that he'll level the Eiffel Tower if he has to with absolute conviction in Taken, seems to be the perfect emotional match for Morel's intensity. He's driven and unhysterical. David Belle, the star of Morel's debut District B 13 and of its sequel, seems to be the perfect physical match.
Like a lot of people, I dig Belle. He's more of a specimen than a perfomer. A professional stunt coordinator and renowned traceur, he can jump, climb, scamper up walls, hop down staircases, swing from ropes. As Besson and Bibi Naceri must've figured out when putting together the screenplay for the first District 13 movie, what he needs is an obstacle course, not a script. On Ultimatum, Besson is now writing alone, but the elements, the quotas, remain the same. He repeats the first film's set of Neanderthalic intrigues and half-assed social observations. It's still the near future, and Belle's back in the 13th, a slumming fantasy of suburban decay. With its trigger-happy police and tribe-like gangs, we might as well call it District 9. At one point or another, nearly every character gets framed in a terribly transparent conspiracy that Besson, from behind his keyboard, seems to keep insisting is a metaphor for the American invasion of Iraq.
But as much as I like watching him, Belle is the worst thing about Ultimatum. It's through no fault of his own. He gets his fair share of tumbles and leaps in the movie, but one key issue's that fellow stuntman-turned-actor Cyril Raffaelli's a better star for Alessandrin. The film's best parts, like that club sequence, feature him without Belle. Pale and skinny with large nose, Raffaelli is more versatile. He can kick and dodge, but he can also deliver one-liners and maintain a convincing relationship with other actors. Forced into an approach that requires more charisma than agility, Belle, the better physical performer, can only suffer in comparison to Raffaelli. He becomes a dead weight, a gymnast in a boxer's role. Yeah, no one in the world is better at leaping out of a window or climbing up a ladder than him. The problem of Ultimatum must therefore be one of directiorial focus: Alessandrin's just not that interested in windows or ladders, and to a director uninterested in Belle's abilities, the actor becomes a liability. Two-thirds of acting is directing, framing and editing. Any bad actor can be used well and even the most interesting type can be made dull (American cinema is full of these litmus tests: is there a better test of a director's abilities than Mark Wahlberg?). Just as no one in the world could repeat Belle's stunts, it now seems that no director but Morel is attuned to the performer enough to direct him.
In Morel's new film, From Paris with Love, Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays James Reese, a low-level spy tasked with changing the license plates on the "real" spies' cars and planting bugs in the offices of beloved allies. Longingly, he runs his fingers over a pistol. This brief shot, this almost onanistic cutaway, is key, because in Morel's films violence is never about power over others, but about power over the self. In this sense, Morel treats every script Besson supplies him with as if it were a variation on Nikita. Both Belle in District B 13 and Neeson in Taken are men who fully realize the power they wield; Neeson seems to be a distant cousin of Nikita's Victor, the career assassin played by Jean Reno. Rhys Meyers in Paris has a strange coming-of-age role: it's as though he starts as the "wimpy" boyfriend played by Jean-Hugues Anglade and ends up as Anne Parillaud's title character. It's a half-baked philosophy: inside of ourselves, we find the ability to kick people in the head or shoot them point-blank. Violence is the ultimate test of character. If a man believes firmly that what's doing is right, he should be able to brush his evils off like dandruff.
The night Reese's girlfriend proposes to him, he's offered a chance for promotion by partnering with Charlie Wax (John Travolta). Morel's men are largely his own, but his women, for better or worse, are all Besson's, and in the Besson house style, the girlfriend can only be a force of destruction, an innocent sex object or one masquerading as the other (maybe Besson hasn't figured out yet that he's one of the few directors who can find the nuances in such an extreme system; no one else could've created Nikita or Angel-A, films whose cartoony women take on an emotional reality through sheer force). Wax, his shaved head spit-shined like a shoe, works for the CIA, though he seems to be taking his orders from Dr. Freedom. An image from early in the film sums up the antics pretty well: Travolta as Wax shoots up a Chinese restaurant straight out of Year of the Dragon as cocaine rains from the ceiling. No American director would ever portray agents of the US government acting this irresponsibly (except maybe Quentin Tarantino, though it's James Bond that he wants to do). From Paris with Love, like Morel's Taken, is a perverse fantasy of ugly Americanism. Do Morel, Besson and screenwriter Adi Hasak realize that what they present as heroic is almost more outrageous than what William Klein presented as satire four decades ago? Reese and Wax snort, fuck and shoot their way through Paris, and then take a break to eat Big Macs.
Why? Well, the plot's just window dressing, useless to the point that its twists and revelations become superficial. Who cares if their mission is to bring a gun through customs or bust a drug ring or avenge a death or catch terrorists (and it appears to be each of those things at one point or another in the movie)? They fight, they joke, they win.
But it's not that the plot "doesn't matter" (it probably mattered to Hasak and Besson); it's that Morel treats it as if it doesn't matter. What Morel is focused on is his contribution, the cohesion of a sequence, instead of the master plan of the plot. His films are full of miniatures: the abduction in Taken, Reese trying to attach a bug with a piece of gum in From Paris with Love, David Belle’s escape at the beginning of District B 13. The flow of action is more important than the structure that flow creates. Nothing is done at a leisurely pace; some scenes are over too quickly, and, though that makes Morel's films hard to follow as "narrative," it makes them better as "action." The “major element” is denied in favor of the “minute element”– the images and sequences trump the ideas.
When Morel finds a place for women in his films, he’ll be out of Besson’s harem. But maybe first he'll get rid of these grand intrigues. The story of Taken, his best film, was essentially two sentences long. The ideal Morel film would consist of a man punching his way through a faceless army. When he’s beaten his fists down to the bone, he punches a wall until he grinds his hands into stumps. Then he declares himself the winner.