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To be fair, Besson's scripts have always been more like designs, blueprints that require his unique style to flesh out visually, aided by his usually spot-on casting. In the hands of other directors, however, the EuropaCorp scripts seem thinner than they should (or perhaps Besson just isn't trying as hard). The Transporter (2002) (directed by Corey Yuen, and co-written by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen) succeeds because of its full integration of character and action: Jason Statham is one with his car, and nothing will come between them. Transporter 2 (directed by Louis Leterrier, co-written by Besson and Kamen) fails when it disrupts this bond and clutters it with too many characters, and its clear that the improved Transporter 3 (directed by Olivier Megaton, co-written again by Besson and Kamen) learned from its predecessor's mistakes.
Besson's best interpreter, however, seems to be Pierre Morel. Banlieue 13 (District B13) (2004) (written by Besson and Bibi Naceri) is light on exposition, using only the briefest elements necessary to frame the parkour gymnastics that are the film's highlight. Morel understands movement like few action directors, and his direction emphasizes the natural fluidity of the body, instead of leaving it to be chopped up and manipulated in post-production as in Patrick Alessandrin's disastrous recent sequel, District 13: Ultimatum (2009). Beneath the raw violence of Morel's Taken (2008) (co-written by Besson and Kamen) is a harsh critique of American foreign policy: like Robert Aldrich in his Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Morel uses the American vigilante's uncontrollable rage to make a subversive political point. From Paris With Love (2010) (written by Adi Hasak from Besson's story) carries its politics straight into satire, with goateed, blinged-out, bald badass John Travolta delivering his anti-terrorist speech in a frenzied coke blur.
As for Besson-the-director in the 2000s, he spent the first half of the decade quiet and then turned out three films in the second half. Angel-A (2005) is about an angel (not so cleverly named "Angela") who comes to earth to help a struggling con artist learn to appreciate life. With Angela's characterization suffering a bit too much from a mother/whore dichotomy, the lustrous, black-and-white cinematography by Thierry Arbogast (Besson's regular D.P. since Nikita) is the movie's chief asset. Arthur et les Minimoys (Arthur and the Minimoys) (2006), a children's movie that mixes live action and CGI, is a cloying story, predictably direced (though Elsa Keslassy makes a good argument in Variety for the film's technical importance within the French film industry). A sequel, Arthur et la vengeance de Maltazard (Arthur and the Revenge of Maltazard) (2009), has yet to be released theatrically here in New York, while part three, Arthur et la guerre des deux mondes (Arthur and the Two Worlds War) is set for release in France later this year.
The precious balance between style, action, and narrative that Besson achieved in Nikita and Léon has yet to be repeated, either in projects directed by himself or by others. The three films done in collaboration with Pierre Morel come the closest, but while they share the leanness of Besson's own work, they are clearly the work of a different director. Morel is far more cynical, and sees little interest in the themes of love and redemption that are Besson's hallmarks (Jonathan Rhys Meyers' big "love" speech at the film's climax is subverted by Travolta's brusque, belated entrance into the back of the frame). Perhaps some of this emotional or stylistic reserve might have saved Besson's post-Léon films, making them more coherent, if not less cluttered with various excesses. And yet, it's impossible to imagine the earlier films without Besson's willingness to dare and experiment with extravagant styles and lean, efficient narratives (even if they did clock in at 160 minutes, such as the case with The Big Blue). From the very beginning, Besson thought big: the dynamism of CinemaScope's widescreen format matched both the monumental landscapes (be they above- or underground, in the present or the future) and the unrelenting ambitions of his characters. There is nothing else like a close-up in CinemaScope, for as the camera gets closer to the subject, the edges of their face distort and expand beyond what is human. They become, essentially, larger than life. And, at his best, so is Besson.