Zoe Saldana as "Cataleya" in "Colombiana." (Columbia Pictures )
When a director dubs himself Megaton, whatever the esoteric allusion and even if he's French, you don't expect subtlety. And subtlety is definitely not what you will get with "Colombiana," the hyperactive action-thriller/fashion-week catwalk starring sleek Zoe Saldana as the latest trend in lethal weapons. Is Saldana the new Schwarzenegger, only leaner, meaner and much better looking in spandex? I think so.
This B-movie blast of bloody blam blam is the latest chapter in the Luc Besson book of badly bruised lovelies who are better not crossed. What he began in 1990 with "La Femme Nikita," followed with "Léon" in '94 and '97's "The Fifth Element," (the last written with Robert Mark Kamen, who co-wrote "Colombiana" with the B-man), he refines in "Colombiana."
Meanwhile, former graffiti artist Olivier Megaton, who in recent years has come under the Besson umbrella directing the very fast-moving train of 2008's "Transporter 3," seems to have hit his stride in this latest excursion into magazine spread murder. It helps that Saldana has the body of a model and a fierceness of acting focus; it all combines to make the slick, intense aesthetic work.
The killing begins in Bogota, when Cataleya (Saldana) is just a 10-year-old schoolgirl doing homework at the kitchen table, when thugs sent by the local drug lord gun down her parents in front of her. That sets up the reason for revenge, but even better, an excuse to stage an exceptionally fine opening chase scene that showcases the beauty, danger and athleticism of parkour as the young Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg) races, rolls and bounds over, around and through tightly stacked hillside houses and serpentine alleyways to escape the killers. Her passport to safety — Chicago and her uncle — a microchip she swallows, then expels, all over the desk of a very disgruntled embassy official.
It's in the Besson tradition to give the main character a trauma that both changes and defines the life that follows. It certainly does for Cataleya. On her first day of school in Chicago, she tells Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) that the only thing she wants to learn is how to become a killer. In a sort of twisted back-to-school-special moment, Uncle E proceeds to explain, in somewhat explosive terms, that what she really needs is a good education if she truly wants to become a good killer. Who knew?
Though we don't see Cataleya grow up, we can guess that she must have been an A student because the next time we see her she's pulling off a smartly sophisticated killing that involves being clad in a body suit and executing a series of contortions in tight spaces that would make Houdini jealous. It comes as no surprise that her targets are all tied to the crew who killed her parents.
Whether it's a nod to the director's artistic leanings, the image of the orchid she's named for — (cattleya, for the horticulturist purists out there) — becomes her signature, inked onto the bodies of her victims. It helps knit the plot together, with the pattern attracting the attention of a persistent FBI agent played by Lennie James, the Colombian drug lord Don Luis (Beto Benites), his No. 2 Marco (Jordi Mollà) and the sleazy CIA agent (Callum Blue) who helped relocate Don Luis and his cronies under some kind of off-the-books witness protection scam to New Orleans.
Since this is also a love story, there is a hunk for Cataleya to get naked with, a position nicely filled by Michael Vartan as Danny. He's an artist who doesn't ask a lot of questions, a good thing considering her messy obsession. The killings prove to be a piece of cake compared to the complications of love and the movie does a pretty good job of bobbing and weaving between the two with Saldana bringing as much verve and emotion to the assignations as to the assassinations.
But the filmmakers never forget their main agenda is action and elimination, piling up the bodies in increasingly exotic and unbelievably complex ways, all very cleverly and cleanly shot by director of photography Romain Lacourbas, who worked with Megaton on "Transporter 3." Keeping the style at Maxim levels is production designer Patrick Durand with costume designer Olivier Bériot making the most of the sartorial possibilities afforded by Saldana's lean, leggy frame
All of that combines to make "Colombiana" into a scandalous blend of action, sex and violence. My apologies in advance for having so much fun.