Ricky Gervais hosted the 2011 and 2012 Golden Globe Awards. At one of them he introduced Bruce Willis by listing a number of his films. While I can’t recall the entire list, he definitely mentioned Tears of the Sun (2003) which made it clear that he was mocking Willis’s career decisions. Also in that list was The Fifth Element. He continued the introduction with “but you probably know him best as Ashton Kutcher’s dad”. That’s stuck in my craw for either five or six years now.
For a start, it’s a really dick-move to bring up someone’s ex-wife’s new boyfriend in front of millions of people. But mostly, of the few missteps Willis has taken in his 30 year career, The Fifth Element is not one of them.
With a lot of science fiction set in the future, or on a different world, they need to spend a little bit of time establishing the rules of the film’s universe so you know what’s going on. Blade Runner (1982) has to tell you that robots are around, and that robot hunters exist. The Star Wars franchise has it’s whole scroll telling you some guys are at war, but you don’t have to worry, this isn’t happening anywhere near you, and it happened ages ago. The Fifth Element is no exception, it just takes the first ten minutes in an Egyptian tomb to say “hey there’s some ancient intergalactic architects, they’ve got something that needs protecting, and they’ll come back later”. They do more in that opening scene at explaining who and why than Ridley Scott could muster in the whole of Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) combined. But that’s an article for another time.
Police: Are you classified as human?
Korben Dallas: Negative, I am a meat popsicle.
Once that set up is out-of-the-way, the future doesn’t really need explaining. But one of the things I love is that although we don’t see loads of scenes of the normal world, they put a shed load of effort in to making it look good. It’s all too easy, and you see it all the time in most futuristic sci-fi, to just have some war-torn buildings and bleak skyline, as if the future has gone through some sort of apocalypse. Because that’s really easy to find and shoot. Instead they go out of their way to show us flying cars and a smog-filled mega-metropolis. The giant McDonalds isn’t just product placement, that’s a prediction for the future, and let’s be honest it’s pretty hard to argue with. Everything will just keep being more than it is now. But for the most part people are the same, it’s crowded as fuck, and fashion is weird, now let’s just get on with it.
We’ve got all the collection of characters necessary for an adventure movie. Corbyn Dallas (Bruce Willis) is the reluctant hero an ex-army/marine/mercenary who now drives a cab. And while I’ll agree that it’s a bit sloppy to have the foil, Leeloo, (Milla Jovovich) just fall into his cab, it services the plot so let’s not over think it. They’re helped by Cornelius (Ian Holm) who is from a long line of Priests served with protecting Leeloo, but mostly he’s there to explain the plot. Gary Oldman is Zorg, the megalomaniac villain who is trying to help destroy the world.
And a whole host of supporting cast members, including Tricky, Chris Tucker (not the ginger kid I went to school with who had a dent in his chest), Lee Evans, and Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister.
Everyone must have known, since the moment they read the script, that this film was going to be a little bit nonsense. But they don’t fuck around with their performances, especially Oldman who is chewing the scenery at every given opportunity.
Zorg: I don’t like warriors. Too narrow-minded, no subtlety. And worse, they fight for hopeless causes. Honor? Huh! Honor’s killed millions of people, it hasn’t saved a single one.
If you’ve read my previous article, you’ll be aware that I put entirely too much stock in the 20-min/60-min rule of pacing. It’s just a good litmus test to know if the story-teller knows what they’re doing and if they care about the audience. At 20 minutes we have Cornelius explaining to the President (Lister) that the planet sized void is there to destroy everything. The 60 minute mark has Dallas being forced to accept the mission. Great pacing. That feeling you get when you’re watching a movie and you think it’s dragging, that’s all down to those major plot points being off by as little as five minutes.
Priest Vito Cornelius: Because it is evil, absolutely evil.
President Lindberg: One more reason to shoot first.
Priest Vito Cornelius: Evil begets evil, Mr. President. Shooting will only make it stronger.
The first climax of the film is the seminal opera scene with pipe-head lady belting out an aria as the backing to super-weapon Leeloo fighting off attackers. While the fight itself is fairly lacklustre, the performance of the song is so fantastic that you’ll barely even notice it’s a couple of slaps and a cart-wheel. But the whole set piece leads us nicely in to the classic Willis last half-hour trope of “there’s bad guys everywhere, lets shoot them all”. It’s just good fun.
Adventure Sci-fi can be extremely tricky to get right, and most of it doesn’t hold up primarily due to effects, I’m thinking of The Last Starfighter (1984), but this movie manages to fit so much in and still look and feel great after 20 years. Like 2015’s Jupiter Ascending this was originally conceived as three stories. With that in mind it’s crazy to try and work out how they got it so wrong with clunky unnecessary over-explanation, when the formula has already been cracked by Luc Besson.
Korben Dallas: What’s your name?
Leeloo: Leeloo Minai Lekarariba-Laminai-Tchai Ekbat De Sebat.
This is Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) era Willis. He’s had a decade making films, everyone knows who he is and what he does. In essence this is him at his most Bruce Willis. So if you’re not a fan then you probably won’t like it. And while Chris Tucker is in less than the last half of the film, he is incredibly Chris Tucker-y. Personally I think he does an excellent job at comic relief in an already comical movie, but am aware that a lot of people find him quite grating. It’s hard to decide if Prince would have played the role any better, as he was the first choice.
In summation, I love The Fifth Element. It’s a great fun adventure film that I could watch anytime, with anyone. And re-watching it now has giving me great hope for Besson’s upcoming Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
And I honestly have no idea what that smug prick Gervais thinks he’s doing. From now on I’m going to work non-stop to become a world-famous entertainer so that one day I might get the opportunity to welcome him on to a stage by reading out his movie credits in a mocking tone, and then point out that he’s never even fucked Demi Moore once.
Don’t worry Bruce, I’ve got your back.