The celebrated French writer, director and producer Luc Besson brings us another high-octane action flick on Friday when Transporter 3 gets its full UK roll-out. Yet Besson has had a hand in a lot of European action films. If you haven’t already seen the best, here’s a list of ten European action films you should check out…
NikitaAn early 90s action classic, Nikita (or La Femme Nikita ) was written and directed by Luc Besson. The story centres on a teenage heroine addict, arrested for murder and jailed for life. After being drugged in prison, Nikita awakes and discovers that she’s under the protection of the French Intelligence Agency and in training to become an elite assassin. Here we see Besson’s merging of Hollywood and Hong Kong action genres for a European audience. Nikita was later adopted, adapted and reprocessed into a US television series – La Femme Nikita – which built up some cult following, but ultimately was destined for the bargain bins. It was also remade in the US for the big screen, with Bridget Fonda (the film’s known as The Assasin or Point Of No Return, depending on where you live). Serious Besson fans will point out Jean Reno’s cameo in Nikita as a cleaner named ‘Victor’ – a dry run for his own hitman thriller, Leon. Talking of which…
LeonWritten and directed by Luc Besson and starring Jean Reno, in what some may say is his best role, the opening scene of Leon features an intense gun fight and several garrottings. This assassination scene takes place in a penthouse apartment high above New York City and was shot in-studio. Set painters spent hundreds of hours carefully hand-rendering a mat painting backdrop of NYC, an effort which is concealed behind closed Venetian blinds several seconds into the scene. What a waste. Leon was initially intended by Besson to be a ‘filler’ film before work on his next blockbuster began, however due to talent shooting schedules, The Fifth Element was delayed until the late 90s.
The Fifth ElementFirst conceived when he was at school, The Fifth Element was written and directed by Luc Besson and released in 1997. This sci-fi thriller starred one of Hollywood’s finest action heroes, Bruce Willis, who plays the hero alongside Gary Oldman, the villain. Both characters never meet or contact each other, despite their actions being inexorably linked. The stand out action scene takes place on an interstellar ferry/hotel – ‘Fhloston Paradise ’ – in which Bruce’s Korben Dallas fights off a hoard of brutish, rubbery aliens whilst destroying the dance hall with several brightly-coloured heavy ordnance weapons – resulting in the largest indoor explosion ever filmed.
Ronin Perhaps best known for an extreme Parisian car chase that’s been compared to the greatness of Bullitt, this 1998 release starred Robert DeNiro and Besson’s hero, Jean Reno. Special attention was paid to the car chase sound design to ensure that every tyre skid, burn and squeal was as true-to-life as possible. One of the stunt drivers was Jean-Pierre Jarier, a former Formula 1 driver who worked with Besson on the Taxi series. 80 automobiles were destroyed during production of Ronin.
Joan of ArcReleased in the US under the title of The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, this middle ages historic account of Joan d’Arc starred Milla Jovovich, who worked with Besson in The Fifth Element. Despite initially slipping under the radar on its 1999 release, this film clocks up some decent large-scale battle scenes and lots of blood. Starring alongside Jovovich is a stellar cast including Dustin Hoffman, John Malkovich, Vincent Cassel and Faye Dunaway – testament that Luc Besson can pull the big Hollywood names when attached as writer and director.
The Transporter seriesStarring one of the UK’s favourite action heroes, Jason Statham, the Transporter franchise has now become a trilogy with the release of Transporter 3. As the hardest courier in history, Jason Statham plays Frank Martin, a black suited ask-no-questions delivery man who ends up working for the wrong side of the law. Famed for its balletic fight scenes and hectic car chases (and somewhat for Statham’s torso), the Transporter films have left action fans grinning from ear to ear. Luc Besson co-wrote all three films, the latest of which is directed by the interestingly-named Oliver Megaton.
District 13Or Banlieue 13, to give its French title. It’s a near-future free running action/chase movie that was written by Luc Besson and stars David Belle – one of the original co-founders of parkour. The majority of the stunts are performed as live – over 90% of the stunts required no special effects or wire work. The most explosive scene takes place in a casino – an under-cover police detective infiltrates the gangster underworld and is forced to fight his way out – fists and feet against guns and knives. If you missed District 13 at the cinema, fret not, District 14 is currently being shot.
Unleashed Named (the perhaps more memorable title of) Danny the Dog in international territories, Luc Besson wrote and Louis Leterrier directed. Unleashed is set, somewhat ambiguously, in the UK; the lead villain role was due to be played by Billy Connolly, a Glaswegian. However, some late running work decreed that Bob Hoskins step in (with cockney accent) ruling out the Glasgow specific location. Besson wrote the film exclusively for Jet Li, who plays a rabid fighting machine play-thing for the criminal underworld. Unleashed is another example of Besson’s ability to marry the action genres of Hollywood and Hong Kong while crafting an outcome that’s appealing to European and US audiences. There’s plenty of fight-club action in Unleashed; the best fight scene takes place – believe it or not – in a toilet cubicle.
Ong-BakHailing from Thailand and starring the now renowned Mauy-Thai kickboxer, Tony Jaa, Ong-Bak was well received and somewhat re-invented the kung-fu genre. This film is absolutely packed with great stunts and fight scenes; two of the most memorable are the alleyway chase (in which our hero ‘Ting’ leaps feet-first through a halo of barbed wire) and the Tuk-Tuk chase scene. In the latter, attentive viewers will notice the phrase “Hi Luc Besson, we are waiting for you” scrawled on a roadside pillar. EuropaCorp, Besson’s company, would later go on to purchase the film for external-Asian distribution.
TakenThis recent action thriller starred Liam Neeson. Taken was created by a team of Besson’s best collaborators: co-written by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (The Transporter series, The Fifth Element) and directed by Pierre Morel, the director of District 13. Taken was a UK box office success. The kitchen scene, in which Neeson takes out several adversaries with kitchen implements and a 9mm, being the most memorable moment.