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Revolutionary Thinking Inside the Box: A Review of Colombiana


Spoilers, if one’s really concerned about that in this sort of thing

After laying bare the thinking behind Colombiana‘s ad campaign earlier this month, I was more eager than any of you to see how such a promising thing, if one confused about its audience, would shape up on the big screen. I’m all too happy to report that this trim 107 minutes of bombast and revenge is exactly as advertised. Colombiana‘s a run-of-the-mill dumb action movie, and from where I’m sitting, that’s all to the good.

I’ve got nothing against dumb action movies (DAMs). In their place, they’re the perfect antidote to the Oscar-baiting dramas of the fall season, and the cape-and-cowl set that’s dominating the summer months. But heading down the far slope of August, and your primary colors? You can keep ’em. Give me the thinnest, fast-spoken excuse for a plot, a nice knife fight, and a couple of grenade launchers, and I’ll settle in to watch the black harness-clad lead, be their name Bourne or Statham (I dare you to pretend his characters have names) run through the streets and alleys chased by a shaky-cam crew.  Some vaguely political twist? A whiff of personal retribution? Bring it, and enough C-4 to blow up a small city, and we have ourselves a deal, movie.

In this respect, Colombiana pays its DAM dues, hitting each one of its marks with precision, and no surprises. The film’s standard through-and-through, from its opening set pieces of macho mob leader standoff, to the final “boss fight”. As a young girl in Bogota, Cataleya (Zoe Saldana) watches a lieutenant for the big mob boss in town murder her parents. (Why exactly is never clear, but that’s hardly important, now is it?) She escapes, in a neat show of B-movie grit that would make Tarantino proud, all the way to her uncle in Chicago. Swearing revenge on the men responsible for killing her family, the stone-cold little girl demands that Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) teach her to be an assassin. Because this is the movies, where witnessing the violent death of your parents leads naturally to seeking a high degree in murder and espionage, instead of years of counseling, Emilio agrees.

Flash forward 15 years, and our little girl’s all grown up and killing people with flair. She’s quick, slick, and earning a pile of cash offing bad guys for whoever needs them taken out. The first job we see her carry out is a wicked piece of fun, involving playing drunk, crashing into a cop car, getting herself arrested, and disposing of her target in a police station loaded up with U.S. Marshals. But poor, empty Cataleya gets lonely in the evenings (as the hero in these things often does), and has taken up an ill-advised romance with a local painter (as the hero often does). She wants to have a good time without too many questions, he wants something resembling a real dating experience. Sigh. Don’t they know relationships are about compromise, particularly when the FBI is after one of you for murdering 23 high-ranking criminals? Their limited exchanges underscore that Colombiana is basically a vigilante pic without the costume; she’s got a secret identity, and is trying to be a regular person (though not very hard; only long enough to eat some noodles), and the two don’t play well together.

But I didn’t come to this for a romance, or sentiment about family, or honor. I came to get some DAM action. Colombiana knows that, and is all too happy to deliver. When the FBI starts to close in, around the time the Big Bad and his guys (and girl! These are the exclamation points of unexpected trope subversion!) put the burn on something fierce, Cataleya’s got to ditch the domestic lie for the assault rifle and get down to dirty business. (It had been 15 minutes since we’d seen her shooting at something, so my interest was, understandably, starting to wane.) Colombiana delivers pretty well in the knock-down drag-out department; our heroine evades a SWAT team by breaking out a stash of arms hidden in a neighbor’s apartment, blowing out a wall, and scooting down an elevator shaft in her pajamas. She also drives a van through a brick wall, sprays bullets all over the pristine entryway of a New Orleans mansion, and swims oh-so-carefully through a shark tank. For the connoisseurs, there’s an inspired, if over-long, piece of hand-to-hand in a bathroom that makes the second Bourne movie’s magazine-versus-knife fight look like kid’s stuff. Baddies get what’s coming to them in straight up and creative ways; I won’t talk about how Señor Evil gets his comeuppance, save to say it’s a nasty piece of work. (Not to mention a bit of a Xanatos Gambit, but who’s keeping track?

As I watched Colombiana, I gave serious consideration to the film’s gaze, and my own, on Saldana’s lithe form. To my relief, the film avoided anything exploitive that would have made my gleeful enjoyment of all this silliness stop short. The camera certainly loves looking at her, but then, the camera is supposed to lovingly look at our protagonist, be they male or female. We go to the movies to watch beautiful people do extraordinary things, and it would be both naive and unrealistic to say that the physical appeal of a figure onscreen plays no part in ticket sales. Cataleya is no more objectified for the viewer’s pleasure than, say, Jason Statham, a bona fide action star of similar vein, who has managed to get his shirt off in everything I’ve seen him in for the last decade or so. Saldana’s male counterparts, and how their bodies are treated onscreen, were the rubric I put Colombiana against. As with the plot, the action, and the parting shots (no pun intended), I felt what I’d seen was an equal treatment to the point of mind-numbing detachment.

While Colombiana offers plenty of little twists and subversions, its adherence to genre convention is, ironically, what I found so refreshing. It is, indeed, the same old thing we’ve seen before, done smartly, and done well. The only difference is that the protagonist who’s doing all the shooting is short a Y chromosome. All I can say is that, if that’s enough to make a difference in 2011, then we’ve got some quick catching up to do.

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