There's no doubt about it, when it comes to saving the world, Bruce Willis is your man. He does it with smarts and style, humor and courage. He's rugged and tough, yet remains vulnerable and tender. And whatever they paid him to appear in "The Fifth Element," it was worth it.
Willis holds together French filmmaker Luc Besson's elaborate, even campy sci-fi extravaganza, which is nearly as hard to follow as last year's "Mission: Impossible." But it is also a lot warmer, more fun and boasts some of the most sophisticated, witty production and costume design you could ever hope to see. As with the Tom Cruise-Brian De Palma blockbuster, just go along with "The Fifth Element" because all becomes clear enough at the finish.
"The Fifth Element" refers to the Greek belief that four elements--earth, air, fire and water--gathered together to create the fifth one--life itself. What if, Besson speculates, there could be a negative form of life in a parallel dimension? And what if every 5,000 years there opened a window of opportunity between the dimensions enabling the forces of darkness to extinguish all light and life in our universe?
After a prologue set in an Egyptian tomb in 1914 done in the style of a silent movie epic--in the manner of early Cecil B. DeMille or Michael Curtiz and featuring aliens that look like gold-plated armadillos--"The Fifth Element" moves 300 years ahead in time when the President of the Federation (Tommy "Tiny" Lister Jr.) is confronted with the appearance in the sky of a fiery dark planet. The priest Cornelius (Ian Holm), who knows of the parallel dimension legend, advises him not to fire at this malevolent-looking mass, but the president orders bombs away. This scheme backfires when the mass increases in size the more it's fired upon.
What an amazing world Besson and his legions of craftsmen have created for us to behold--and in such imminent danger of destruction! Production designer Dan Weil has envisioned New York as a kind of city-state that seems to pay homage to Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" in which all manner of vehicles move through the air in deep, deep canyons created by immensely tall skyscrapers in the Beaux Arts style. (It would seem here that Art Nouveau is in but Art Deco is out.)
The population now includes the immense, canine-like Mangalores, who happen to be mercenaries of this film's Ming the Merciless: Gary Oldman's Zorg, "agent of all that is evil," which means he's the contact man for that dark planet, natch. Then within a huge glass cylinder materializes none other than the Supreme Being herself, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), who for the world looks like a Jean-Paul Gaultier model, a blond with an overlay of a near-phosphorescent red dye on her locks for a neo-punk look. (You check your credits and, guess what, Gaultier is the film's costume designer.)
One tricky plot development after another brings together the lissome Leeloo, Willis' Korben Dallas--a retired major in an elite military force and now a cabby living in South Brooklyn--and Cornelius in an attempt to defeat the forces of evil.
Adventures take Leeloo and Korben, who of course fall in love, to a vast cruise ship with interiors that would make Donald Trump's Taj Mahal casino seem understated. They encounter a super-frenetic TV disc jockey/interviewer diva called Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker), who, in turn, makes RuPaul--or for that matter Dennis Rodman--seem as calm and sedate as Whistler's mother.
The look and feel of "The Fifth Element" is clearly more important to Besson than the narrative--oh, for a soupcon of old-fashioned clarity!--and it recalls "Blade Runner" with a touch of Gallic "Barbarella" insouciance thrown in for good measure. (Pastiche is clearly Besson's passion here.)
In some sequences there is that grunge look that harks back beyond "Star Wars" to John Carpenter's "Dark Star" (1974), which may be the most influential least-known movie of the past couple of decades. These days, it all but goes without saying that the special effects, indeed all technical and creative aspects of the film, are stupendous.
The cast is a delight, but it's Willis who is the film's true "fifth element," giving it life, depth and humanity.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense sci-fi violence, some sexuality and brief nudity. Times guidelines: The film has some scenes of violence too intense for small children.
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'The Fifth Element'
Bruce Willis: Korben Dallas
Gary Oldman: Zorg
Ian Holm: Cornelius
Milla Jovovich: Leeloo
Chris Tucker: Ruby Rhod
Luke Perry: Billy
A Columbia presentation of a Gaumont production. Director Luc Besson. Producer Patrice Ledoux. Screenplay by Besson & Robert Mark Kamen. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. Editor Sylvie Landra. Costumes Jean-Paul Gaultier. Music Eric Serra. Special visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson. Production designer Daniel Weil. Art directors Jim Morahan, Kevin Phipps, Michael Lamont. Set decorators Maggie Gray, Anna Pinnock. Paul Weathered. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.