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Luc Besson channels Dr. Phil

The director's usual stunts and effects are missing in `Angel-A.' So is depth. Platitudes, however, are plentiful.

May 25, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

Despite the seeming ubiquity of Luc Besson, it has been nearly eight years since a Besson-directed live-action film opened in the U.S. Busying himself with producing and/or writing a slew of high-octane (and highly profitable) action films such as the "Taxi" and "Transporter" series, he's never been far from the cinematic limelight following the extravagance of 1999's medieval epic "The Messenger -- The Story of Joan of Arc." For his 10th directorial feature (Besson also recently directed the animated "Arthur and the Invisibles"), the French filmmaker dials things down considerably with a dopey, demimonde parable of self-acceptance, "Angel-A."

The story of a desperate man given an opportunity at redemption, the film is the product of Besson rediscovering the city of Paris and lavishing upon it a black-and-white visual embrace (courtesy of director of photography Thierry Arbogast) that almost makes the whole thing worthwhile. The narrative isn't the most original, and it has a flimsy moral basis for its feather-light philosophizing, but coming from a filmmaker better known for stylish action fare such as "La Femme Nikita" and "Leon" (released in the U.S. as "The Professional") and overblown entertainments such as "The Fifth Element," it might qualify as pensive.

Comedian-turned-actor Jamel Debbouze ("Amelie," "Days of Glory") plays Andre, a small-time North African criminal with a U.S. green card and a knack for lying and getting himself deeply in debt -- the kind that gets you tossed off the Eiffel Tower for nonpayment. Under pressure from seedy Parisian underworld types, Andre tries to plead and con his way out of his predicament but to no avail.

He finds himself perched on a bridge ready to drown himself in the Seine when he spies a woman thrashing about in the water, apparently a fellow suicide attempt. Temporarily snapped out of his own despondence, Andre leaps into the river and pulls her to safety.

Her name is Angela, and she is no ordinary woman. Played by Danish model Rie Rasmussen (you may remember her as a brunet making out with Rebecca Romijn in "Femme Fatale"), she stands a full head taller than Andre and looks as if she stepped out of a teenage boy's fantasy, with legs up to here and a tiny black dress that barely covers there.

Angela smokes like there's no tomorrow -- it's banned where she comes from -- and has some interesting ways to make some quick cash.

The comically mismatched duo share some borderline metaphysical conversation that leans more toward Dr. Phil than Descartes and meander through a gorgeously shot, depopulated Paris (it's nearly as empty as London in "28 Days Later") with Angela teaching Andre the power of looking in the mirror and saying, "Je t'aime."

Dialogue and two-handers have never been the forte of Besson -- who, per the Internet Movie Database, has accumulated an astonishing 68 producing and 22 writing credits since "Messenger."

Although Angela is perfectly in line with any number of Besson heroines and does her share of derriere-kicking, the director's pacing seems adrift without his usual array of stunts and effects to fill the lulls.

In essence, you get "It's a Wonderful Life" meets "Wings of Desire," swapping out the substance for self-help platitudes. If you can get past that, you can enjoy it as a 90-minute look at a lovely postcard.

"Angel-A." MPAA rating: R for language and some sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In French with English subtitles. In selected theaters.

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