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Earth, Wind, Fire - and a hapless cabbie?

Cab driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) in The Fifth Element.


Directed by Luc Besson.

Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen.

Starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich, and Ian Holm.

By Jonathan Litt
Staff Reporter

French films: They're not just for art-houses anymore. Although The Fifth Element is not a French film per se, it was conceived and produced in France by Luc Besson, whose previous films, La Femme Nikita and The Professional, are as well known in America as most mainstream American action flicks. The Fifth Element retains several uniquely French characteristics (such as the ability to make the viewer occasionally wonder, "What was that scene all about?"), but for the most part has all the makings of a summer blockbuster: a big star (Bruce Willis), a reliably successful genre (sci-fi), and some of the most amazing visual effects ever to grace the big screen.

The opening shot sets the tone with a modern-day twist on a classic theme. What appears to be a highway rolling underneath the headlights of a moving car is revealed to be a thick asteroid belt rolling underneath the lights of a flying spaceship - likely Besson's way of telling us to expect the unexpected. The setting shifts to an archeological expedition in Egypt in 1914. An archeologist and his assistant (Luke Perry) have discovered an ancient set of hieroglyphics, according to which mankind is threatened every 5,000 years by an ultimate evil entity. This evil can be vanquished with the help of the the four elements - earth, wind, water, and fire - as well as an unexplained magical fifth one. The next confrontation appears to be due in about 300 years.

Jump to New York City, 2259. A cab driver named Korbin Dallas (Willis) wakes up in his cramped apartment to what he thinks will be another drab and unexciting day, but everything changes when a strange, disheveled looking woman (Milla Jovovich) comes crashing through the roof of his vehicle. The audience already knows who she is and where she came from (I won't give that away here), but Dallas is not too sure what to think about her because she speaks an unintelligible, babbling dialect and the police seem to be chasing after her. Realizing that she might be in danger, Dallas floors the cab to get away from the police. This leads to one of the most spectacular sequences in the film - a special-effects laden car chase on a three-dimensional grid of "streets."

A series of events leads Dallas and his female companion in search of the elements that can help protect mankind from its impending doom. Also in search of these elements are the evil Zorg (Gary Oldman) and his not-so-friendly henchmen of Mangalore aliens, who have the ability to morph into the shape of humans. They all head off to Fhloston Paradise, a floating paradise ship on a remote planet where they think the elements can be found. Much of the art direction at this point turns characteristically French. A flamboyant international radio talk show host (comedian Chris Tucker of "Friday" fame, who contrary to popular rumor did not commit suicide after making this film) and a tentacle-headed intergalactic opera diva are just a few of the characters who are bound to leave baffled and dumbfounded much of the American moviegoing audience. But that's OK, because soon the action shifts to a good old blow-'em-up shootout, the making of which involved the largest indoor explosion ever captured on film. A formulaic cheesy ending finishes things off.

With The Fifth Element, Besson has advanced the state of the art in bringing fantasy/sci-fi visuals to the screen. The images might not be convincingly realistic (a la Twister or Jurrasic Park), but they were not intended to be. Instead he was aiming for an aesthetic comic book-like quality, which is no surprise since the visual style was inspired by several famous French comic books, the authors of which headed the artistic design of the film.

The Fifth Element premiered at the coveted opening slot at the Cannes film festival on Wednesday night and opens today in theatres everywhere. Let the summer box office race begin.