Other than some Arthurian goodness, Luc Besson has been notoriously hard to get into a director’s chair for the last 10 years. However when The Family, the latest action-comedy fired from the point of his pen, started ensnaring names like Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones to its cast, he was faced with an offer he couldn’t refuse. As opposed to scribbling an outline down on a napkin for Taken and Transporter sequels in exchange for generous paycheck portions, The Familymarks the first unapologetically action-oriented English language film Besson’s helmed since the 1990s. Was it worth the wait? It’s hard to say. While all the exaggerated violence and glorified horror that made La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element and Léon (or The Professional for Americans missing out) such cult classics is on display, it is surely missing that level of playfulness and ingenuity that made those films sparkle. Then again, what Besson does not bring from his own bag of tricks, he gleefully borrows from that of Martin Scorsese for the movie’s most inspired moments. The main ingredient to this layered mob and spaghetti is Robert De Niro as Giovanni Manzoni, a former wiseguy who got wise and turned in his crew for a ticket to the French Riviera. Unfortunately, Giovanni (or Fred Blake) is still just a goombah from Brooklyn and cannot break his violent streak, landing his family perpetually on the move like a group of American nomads. Hence, the film introduces the clan as they drive into the dullest corner of Normandy. Yet, if De Niro is the basis for the dish, the secret key ingredient to the film is the actress who plays his wife. As Maggie Manzoni/Blake, Pfeiffer is the heart of the titular family and the energetic force propelling the movie’s warmth and laughs. Clearly still having an itch for playing mafia dolls 25 years after Jonathan Demme’s underrated Married to the Mob, Pfeiffer slips comfortably into Maggie whether it is by horrifying a priest during a confession about her family or quietly torching the umpteenth grocery store that sneers at her Americanism (clearly she has married her soul mate). Together they are raising two teenage children, Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo), a pair of know-it-alls who also share their parents taste for La Cosa Nostra justice, as demonstrated when Belle breaks the heart (as well as a few ribs) of a hairy French date rapist and when Warren hires the bigger kids to break the slightly less big kids. Indeed, the singular thing preventing this family’s dysfunction from blowing up the dinner table is how they all enjoy solving their problems at the end of a baseball bat, tennis racket or other varying pieces of sports equipment. I have not really addressed the plot yet, as there is not necessarily one in the traditional sense. Much like many of Besson’s better films, the conflict is happenstance to how the characters interact with each other. And with a title like The Family, they get along fairly well. De Niro has played so many gangsters and mafiosos at this point that he deserves to have his brass knuckles gilded. Nonetheless, it is apparent as to why he would be attracted to this film. Too often in mob films, including many of his own, the story ends with a protagonist disappearing into the Witness Protection Program. But seeing Henry Hill complain about eggplant and ketch-up surely has enough potential to be its own story. Adding an extra wrinkle to this with the fish-out-of-water framing device, Besson is able to humorously move the narrative to his native France, a markedly unique locale for a mob comedy. Still, seeing De Niro’s Giovanni experience his mid-life crisis through writing a memoir about his life as a gangster (allowing for some hilarious non-sequitur flashbacks) does not feel all that different from the schtick of his Analyze This days. But he provides a serviceable anchor for everyone else’s shenanigans, particularly Belle, who is truly daddy’s little girl. Agron’s visceral pleasure to no longer be in the bipolar hands of Ryan Murphy is bursting at the seams of the frame. As the mafia princess, Agron mostly gets to embody the waifish figures throughout Besson’s milieu, including Milla Jovovich in Fifth Element and Natalie Portman’s star-making turn as Mathilda in Léon. And like the latter, there is more than a whiff of a Lolita element onscreen when the 17-year-old Belle seduces her college-age tutor. The more intriguing returning motif is the director’s penchant for stylized violence. Also like a sequence from Léon, the film opens with the mass mafia slaughter of an entire family sitting down for dinner. Likely introduced to seriously add stakes for the third act, these New York button men eventually seem to cut the population of Normandy down by half with a level of murder so extreme that one ponders why Besson takes so much pleasure in watching his fellow countrymen be slaughtered by Americans, as if this were Taken 3. However, the brutality is effective in making the bad guys seem REALLY BAD, and thus causing even the most jaded audience member to rally around our titular group of New York misanthropes for a sincerely suspenseful and entertaining climax. It’s also greatly enhanced because Besson builds up his big bads by kissing the ring of Scorsese. With Scorsese’s apparent endorsement, press material says that he loved the script, Besson gives a wink and nudge by borrowing liberally from Scorsese’s imprimatur of Italian-American actors to play THE family back east and stateside. Considering that it’s a cheeky plot device and mega-deus ex machina for the villains which brings the betrayed crew knocking at Giovanni and Maggie’s French door, it helps a great deal when actors like Vincent Pastore and Dominic Chianese are there to breathe the menace that comes from decades of cinema and television wiseguy antics. In fact, the self-aware smirk of the whole enterprise for a brief moment achieves a meta-level of brilliance when Giovanni is escorted by his lead G-Man babysitter, Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), to a French town hall meeting. As with Pfeiffer, De Niro’s good fellow routine is enlivened when around another acting veteran he has previously never shared the screen with. The pair of frenemies who have known each other for half-a-dozen years quarrel like an old married couple, thereby leaving the audience to wish the two titans had more scenes of butting heads.
But in this particular moment, they are experiencing their first man-date because Giovanni, woefully miscast in his cover identity as a historian researching the G.I. landings (which he repeatedly confuses for the Marines), was asked by his neighbors to discuss an American film classic starring Frank Sinatra. However, once at the town hall, it turns out that the French Academy has sent another film by mistake, one upon whose authenticity “Fred Blake” is asked to verify as a former New Yorker. The movie? Goodfellas. Of course. The look on De Niro’s face is worth the price of admission. Even his anti-U.S. snob neighbors cannot deny this wholly American artifact’s greatness, which 20 years later still serves as a monument to this leading actor and genre, even if only as a punch line here. One certainly strong enough to lift this borgata off the ground. Den of Geek Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars