Get Out Your Multipass: The Fifth Element at 20
Director Luc Besson jumped from Léon: The Professional, a heartfelt movie about a hitman and the little girl whom he befriends, to The Fifth Element, a sci-fi action movie about a cab driver who helps save the universe. It’s one of the ‘90s better one-two punches, with Besson proving his skill has an action director twofold. Since then, as a director, Besson has had his share of hits and misses, but as a writer and producer, he's been far more successful — Besson has had a hand in the Taken and The Transporter series, along with countless French productions. The Fifth Element remains a unique film that has yet to be topped by Besson, one that shows off his eccentricities while also embracing the American action aesthetic that has coursed through a lot of his work.
The premise is simple enough for a sci-fi action epic — in the year 2263, an evil force is set to destroy the universe, and it’s up to Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a set of priests (one of whom is played by Ian Holm), and an alien known as the ‘Fifth Element’, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), to save the day. Oh, and the villain of the movie is played by none other than Gary Oldman in a role that goes beyond standard scene-chewing. While the huge threat is a dark blob in space, Oldman as businessman Zorg, thrives for destruction just so he can come in and make a profit from the cleanup (sounds familiar). Oldman has a bizarre accent (I guess you could call it Southern?) to supplement his plasticy, fluorescent outfit and godawful haircut. With Zorg and Léon’s Norman Stansfield, Oldman has cemented his place in Cinema’s Bad Guy Hall of Fame.
With Willis in the lead, and with so much action running through the film, sure, The Fifth Element comes off as Die Hard in Space. But, there’s just something so unmistakably French about the whole thing, separating it from standard Hollywood blockbusters. There are expressive gags, from an overly on-edge mugger to zany sound effects with each exaggerated movement. All of that is really just the foundation for Ruby Rhod, a flamboyant radio DJ played by Chris Tucker that not only steals the film, he takes it to the bank, turns around and steals it again. Ruby’s scenes may seemingly grind the film to a halt, but it’s Besson easing us into a zaniness American's aren't accustomed to before slamming our heads together with the film’s climactic shootout.
Besson has a unique eye for action. The final showdown with Willis versus a gang of alien bad guys still holds up. Mixed with practical effects and death-defying stunt work, it’s a payoff any action fan (more specifically, Bruce Willis action fan) would eat up. Earlier in the film, Besson assembles a standout chase scene, involving flying cars and Willis’ Dallas evading a squad of cops. Two decades later, the special effects in the sequence, for the most part, still hold up. It’s a credit to the production design and savvy camera work by Besson and the crew that this chase sequence is still used as demo material for sound systems and HDTV screens in Best Buys today.
Everyone in the film is after one thing: a set of stones and Leeloo, all of which will either save or destroy creation. Milla Jovovich as Leeloo is labeled as ‘perfect’ and her psychical appearance is continuously gawked at by every male character in the film, but she does get her kick-ass moments. She’s literally used as a plot device, the crucial ‘Fifth Element’ that helps save the world, but Jovovich’s performance is genuine, going from wide-eyed innocence to harrowing despair after learning of man’s penchant to destroy each other. What’s endearing about The Fifth Element is how — while it remains a goofball sci-fi movie with steely, well-constructed action scenes — it ends up being a movie about love, more specifically, the love that Dallas and Leeloo have that ultimately unlocks the ultimate weapon against evil. It may be silly, but Besson’s The Fifth Element, 20 years later, is still immensely entertaining and presents its director’s quirky, unabashed vision unfiltered.