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THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

For Pierre Morel, revenge thrillers are sweet

The French director may not be winning critics, but he's turning heads in Hollywood with 'Taken.'

February 20, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

If you're an agent who represents the hottest new director in Hollywood, it's never quiet in your office because your phone never stops ringing. Just ask Robert Newman, the veteran Endeavor agent who represents a host of top directors, including "Slumdog Millionaire's" Danny Boyle. With Boyle poised to collect an Oscar statuette or two Sunday, you'd think Newman would be basking in the Boyle spotlight. But as it turns out, Newman's hottest director is someone almost no one outside of Hollywood has heard of: Pierre Morel, an obscure French cinematographer turned director who as recently as six years ago was shooting second-unit footage in Paris for Nancy Meyers' "Something's Gotta Give."

Now Morel is suddenly a filmmaking star. While no one was looking, Morel's latest film, the Liam Neeson-starring revenge thriller "Taken," has made more than $150 million around the world, $82 million of it in the U.S., making it the second-highest-grossing film of 2009 after "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." The critics were largely appalled by the film's pulpy, down-'n'-dirty feel, with the New York Times' Manohla Dargis calling it an "exploitative throwaway" and the New Yorker's Anthony Lane dismissing it as "trash." But in Hollywood, Morel struck a different chord: Working on a very modest budget (roughly $25 million) he made a propulsive action movie that breathed new life into an old genre -- the revenge thriller.

The film's potent international appeal is what got everyone's attention, since the international market is one of the few remaining growth businesses in Hollywood. "Paul Blart " may have made more money in the U.S., but as a comedy with a TV actor in the starring role, it will be a tough sell overseas. Studio execs are far more enamored by filmmakers like Morel, whose highly visual cinematic language translates into every moviegoing culture. Like football and hip-hop, action movies are at home nearly everywhere around the globe.

"Critics just have an inherent bias against vigilante, outside-the-law story lines that are unapologetic about having truly good guys and bad guys," says Newman. "It must make them uncomfortable. Don Siegel didn't get good reviews for 'Dirty Harry' and Tony Scott didn't get good reviews for 'Man on Fire,' yet those are both incredibly great pieces of filmmaking."

Newman saw Morel's 2004 directorial debut "District B13" and called the filmmaker cold. He says Morel is eager to work on the right project. "He doesn't want to do sequels or stories that are tongue-in-cheek or self-referential," says Newman. "I'd love to see him do the kind of movies we've seen from Ridley and Tony Scott or Michael Mann, anything with the kind of intensity you see in their films."

Both of Morel's films as a director were produced by Luc Besson, whose early films as a director were clearly inspired by an earlier generation of Hollywood thrillers. Although Besson often got rave reviews, he was too quirky to become a reliable A-list studio director. Morel seems to have more in common with the Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, whose "Wanted" was such a huge hit last summer. Morel also has that lean-'n'-mean cinematic style that turns heads in Hollywood, a town full of respect for directors who win Oscars but loves filmmakers who make butt-kicking thrillers even more.

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patrick.goldstein @latimes.com

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