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Besson's follow-up, Subway (1985) took the rat race underground. With the exception of its irresistibly awesome opening car chase, the film is set almost entirely in the Paris subway system. Besson continues with narrative experimentation here, as its story is based around an intricate series of cat-and-mouse games between a thief (Christophe Lambert), a dissatisfied wife (Isabelle Adjani), her husband whom he robbed, and the inept police who can't seem to catch Lambert and his group of con artists. The redemptive possibilities of love and art—as well as their self-destructive potentials—is a reoccurring theme for Besson, and it forms the basis of his aquatic epic Le Grand Blue (The Big Blue) (1988). In tracing the competitive friendship between two free divers and their dangerous ambition to push their bodies beyond human limits, Besson was able to transcend his own bodily capacities: contradicting the doctors who once told him he'd never dive again, Besson shot much of the underwater footage himself. For the first time he allowed himself to photograph something aesthetically beautiful: we see not only the idealist, romantic notions that underlie Besson's vision, but also the limitless grandeur of his direction. A companion documentary film, Atlantis (1991), strives for Jean Painlevé-like anthropomorphism but ultimately falls short. The excessive emphasis on image-sound synchronization (synth funk and fast-motion editing) has dated badly.
Despite the youthful daring of Le Dernier Combat, Nikita (1990) and Léon (The Professional) (1994) are his two masterpieces: the most mature iterations of his repeated theme of love forged through violence and rebellion, and the peak of his visual expression in which style complements (but does not overshadow) the story. The titular characters are both professional killers—Nikita (Anne Parillaud, who later married and then divorced the director) is a Parisian street punk turned assassin for the state, while Léon (Besson regular Jean Reno) is an émigré hitman living in New York City. What connects them is their decision to sacrifice the safety of their marginality for love—Nikita for the affections of a grocery store clerk, and Léon for twelve-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman). (Contrary to film scholar Susan Hayward's reading, Léon and Mathilda's relationship is not pedophiliac at all, but is instead sincere, tender, and platonic). Nikita and Léon's professionalism also provides the perfect platform for Besson's skilful action choreography. Whether Nikita's kitchen gun battle or Leon's one-man defense against the entire NYPD, Besson impresses with both fluidly kinetics movement and inventive manipulation of body and space.
After the excessive, campy sci-fi extravaganza The Fifth Element (1997), and the miscast mess that was The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), Besson took a break from directing and formed EuropaCorp with Pierre-Ange le Pogam of Gaumont (a French production/distribution company that dates back to 1895, and which has handled all of Besson's feature films). Whereas both The Fifth Element and The Messenger suffered from (among other things) Besson's expanding epic vision that overextended (and emphasized) weak scripts with an imbalance of half-baked philosophies and half-developed characters, Taxi (1998) fails for the exact opposite reason. Written and co-produced by Besson, it is decidedly lacking in ambition. Its premise of a speed-demon taxi driver blackmailed by police to help take down a gang of German bank robbers seems borrows the plot criminal-to-police transition from Nikita, but stops there. The racing scenes don't stand up to the opening of Subway, and the jokes are as bad as anything in The Fifth Element.