Columbiana is an action movie that starts with a child sitting at the kitchen table as the goons of a slimy drug lord gun down her mom and dad. She then escapes and grows up to become a skilled killer out for revenge. It doesn’t sound too notable, does it? It sounds like countless other vengeance-fueled thrillers that have slunk across multiplex screens over the years. Indeed it is derivative and fairly predictable. But what makes Columbiana an interesting film, and sometimes a fairly enjoyable one, is the gritty sensuality at its core provided by its star Zoe Saldana.
After stealing scenes in genre movies both good (Avatar) and bad (The Losers), Saldana has finally been given a leading role. This time she’s not helping the action sequences. Here she is the action sequences. Playing the grown up version of the little girl we first meet fleeing her parents killers, Saldana keeps the pain of this trauma close under her skin while slinking through her days plotting out violence against those who have caused her family so much harm.
When we first see Saldana, she gets in a car crash with a police officer and stumbles out onto the pavement. Arrested, she’s thrown in the drunk tank to sober up. This can’t be the same little girl we just saw moments earlier mourning while arriving at the house of her uncle (Cliff Curtis), looking at him with a quiet fury and declaring that she wants to be a killer. In fact this is the same person. She’s only faking the drunken party-girl act. The instant she’s left alone she stylishly wriggles out of her cell to gun down the man the next cell block over, a man with Columbian drug connections. She marks him with the sign of an orchid, a Cataleya, her name. She’s sending a message to the drug lord’s empire, and especially his head killer (Jordi Mollà), the murderer of her parents. She’s coming for them.
The screenplay is by Luc Besson, the French genre specialist behind the likes of Le Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, and Robert Mark Kamen, his longtime collaborator. It’s filled with the dusty old tropes of the genre, like the clueless lover (Michael Vartan) who wants to know more and the only F.B.I. agent (Lennie James) who can piece together what is really going on, all the while becoming sympathetic to the killer’s cause. But what the film lacks in originality of plotting and dialogue, it mostly makes up for in the sheer low pleasures of the way it sets up its action sequences. The aforementioned jailhouse murder is a stylishly complex sequence of meticulous plans, shimmying through ducts, and a tight-fitting bodysuit. Later, a Ponzi-scheming fat-cat casually mentions the danger of his pet sharks and, wouldn’t you know it, Cataleya makes sure he gets to experience that danger up close before the movie’s over.
All the slick action would be for naught if it weren’t for Saldana. She successfully inhabits the physicality needed for the action and she can more than pull off the emotion, like in a scene in which she allows a single tear to run down her cheek as she explains the reasons driving her towards these violent tasks. But most of all, French director Olivier Megaton (not his real name, but the fact that he chose a perfect name to scream French action director shows where his ambitions are) allows his camera to regard Saldana with a reverence to her beauty, her textures, and her physique. There’s a little adolescent objectification going on here, to be sure, but the way Megaton allows the camera to be so in awe of her incredible feats of destruction goes a long way towards letting the film feel more respectful than mere ogling. (Megaton’s Transporter 3 treated Jason Statham in much the same way). Saldana brings freshness to Columbiana that it would not otherwise have. This is a slick, stylish, Euro-flavored actioner that feels as fresh as its lead and as stale as its script, but that more or less works out to an enjoyably dumb time at the movies.