Before I get into this blog post, this past week I celebrated my third houseversary. Usually I write some sort of blog post related to that around the time of my houseversary, but this year, I’m working on completely redoing my main bathroom. I figured that I’d wait until that’s done instead.
Back in March, it was announced that Bruce Willis was retiring from the entertainment industry, after a nearly 4 decades long career involving TV roles, movies, stage musicals, and even a trilogy of music albums and appearances. As much as he’s mostly known for his action movies, he was also a skilled dramatic actor, and also did fairly well with comedies. His best movies, like Die Hard, tended to utilize all of his acting talents. I haven’t fully decided on which movies I’ll be watching this month, but there will be at least one dramatic performance, and hopefully a comedy.
As for why Bruce Willis retired, it was announced that he’s been diagnosed with aphasia. It means brain damage focused in the area that involves language comprehension and expression. There are a lot of rumors that he was diagnosed earlier than this, and part of that surrounds the fact that for the last few years of his career, he mostly acted in low-budget independent action thrillers. These movies were usually straight-to-video, and according to a Los Angeles Times article on March 31, those who worked with him were concerned about his cognitive decline, and noted that he appeared confused about why he was there, and had to be fed his lines through an earpiece. His last theatrical release, Out Of Death, only received a limited release, and days before filming began, the screenwriter was instructed to reduce Willis’s role and abbreviate his dialogue.
Before his announced diagnosis, it was fun to laugh at what his career had become. These movies often involved scenes where one shot involving one actor took place at day, yet Willis’s shot in the same scene was at night. One of these movies didn’t even include all of the credits properly, and had ????? as a placeholder for a couple of the names. The Golden Raspberry Awards of 2022 planned to have a special category called Worst Bruce Willis Performance in a 2021 Movie, but retracted the award the day after they announced his diagnosis, saying it was inappropriate to make fun of someone whose performance is affected by a medical condition. For that same reason, I will not be looking at one of his later releases. Even if they may be entertainingly bad, it would be disrespectful to make fun of an actor whose brain is no longer working properly. Before they announced his health problems, it was fun to make fun of these movies. Now it feels genuinely sad that this is how his movie career ended.
Anyway, the first movie I’m looking at this month is The Fifth Element, a 1997 English language French sci-fi film. The movie is directed by Luc Besson, a French director who’s actually directed a lot of English language films over the years, including Taken, The Messanger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Lucy, and the Arthur animated film trilogy. With The Fifth Element specifically, he started developing the story when he was 16 years old. When the movie released in 1997, he was 38. Talk about a life-long passion project. At the time, he envisioned the world of The Fifth Element to alleviate boredom. The story was originally set in the year 2300, and was about a “nobody” named Zaltman Bleros, who wins a trip to the Cub Med resort. There, he would meet a 2000-year-old “sand-girl” named Leeloo, who appeared to be young despite her age.
By the time he released his Atlantis documentary in 1991, he had a 400-page script for this project. That’s when he started actively working on the movie, bringing in Patrice Ledoux to produce, along with a couple of French comic creators to help with the set design. He approached both Willis and Mel Gibson for the lead role. Willis was hesitant to take on the role, after his two previous movies, Hudson Hawk and Billy Bathgate, both bombed. After Gibson turned down the role, Willis agreed to perform in the role. However, after concerns of the $100 million budget made it difficult to find a production company, all production for the movie froze in December of 1992 without warning, and the team disbanded.
In the meantime, Besson wrote and directed the successful English language film, Leon: The Professional. In the meantime, he continued working on The Fifth Element’s script, mainly focusing on shortening it. He reduced the budget to $90 million before shopping in around. Columbia Pictures, who worked with him on Leon: The Professional, accepted the project. Besson wanted to go with a lesser known actor to save on production costs.
He happened to be in film producer Barry Josephson’s office when Willis called regarding another film, and Besson asked to speak “just to say hello”, and told him that The Fifth Element was finally going head. After telling Willis of his plan to go for a lesser known actor, Willis said,
“If I like the film, we can always come to an arrangement.”
After reading the script, Willis joined, agreeing to a smaller salary than what he usually demanded.
Other actors in the movie include Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Serius Black in Harry Potter 3 and 5) as the main villain, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins in Fellowship of the Ring and Return of the King) as preacher Vito Cornelius, Milla Jovovich as Leeloo, and Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod. This is a strange collection of characters here. Leeloo is the humanoid re-incarnation of “The Fifth Element”. Her genetic material was found in a sarcophagus last seen in 1914, so they recreated her with biotechnology, yet she remembers her previous life. She starts the movie off speaking in a dead language, and spends most of the movie learning about the world. Ruby Rhod is a flamboyant talk show host who might be annoying to some, but Tucker is very creative with the role, snapping back and forth between being loud and obnoxious and subtle with ease. Ruby Rhod was originally called Loc Rhod, and he’s actually called Luc in the novelization of the movie. Also, Jamie Foxx was also considered for the role, and Besson really liked Foxx, but felt that Tucker’s smaller body suit the character better.
One interesting aspect of the movie, and one that’s intentional, is that Willis’s character (renamed to Korben Dallas for the movie) and Jean-Baptiste, never share any screen time. Despite being the main hero and the main villain, they never meet each other.
Most of the filming took place in London, including the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios, as there weren’t any suitable locations in France for the look of the film. The early scenes meant to represent Egypt were filmed in Mauritania, a country in West Africa in which 90% of their land mass is in the Sahara Desert. About a year after the movie’s release, it was hit by a plagiarism lawsuit by French comic creators Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jean Giraud, claiming it copied their comic The Incal. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2004 because the movie only used “tiny fragments” of the comic, and also because Giraud was actually hired early on to work on the film’s set design. Yeah … he didn’t think that one through.
When the movie released in May of 1997, it performed very well, earning $264 million worldwide on its $90 million budget. It remained the highest earning French movie until The Intouchables in 2011. It was the bestselling movie in France that year, with over 7 million tickets sold, and it earned the Golden Leinwand award for selling over 3 million tickets in Germany, and was the 9th highest earning movie overall in 1997 worldwide. It received a fan following that remains strong to this day, some believing it’s a genuinely good movie, while others see it as a “so bad it’s good” cult classic.
Despite its major success and popular audience response, The Fifth Element split critics, making for a divisive reception. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel gave the film two thumbs up, while in his written review, Ebert called the movie “one of the great goofy movies … I would not have missed seeing this film, and I recommend it for its richness of imagery.” The Los Angeles Times described the film as “elaborate, even campy sci-fi extravaganza, which is nearly as hard to follow as last year’s Mission Impossible.” He liked the movie’s overall warm tone, the production design, and the costumes. Variety on the other hand called it “A largely misfired European attempt to make an American-style sci-fi spectacular. Slate’s review was particularly harsh, saying “It may or may not be the worst movie ever made, but it is one of the most unhinged.”
Tucker’s performance in particular divided critics, with the Los Angeles Times review praising his role, while Total Film called it the low point of the film, ranking it 20th on his “50 Performances That Ruined Movies” list in 2013.
The film also received several awards and nominations. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound Editing, a nomination for Best Dramatic Presentation at the Hugo Awards, and even won the Best Special Visual Effects at BAFTA, the Technical Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. At the Cesar Awards (which focus on French cinema), it won Best Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Production Design, along with 5 more nominations. At the same time, the movie earned two nominations at the Razzies, for Worst Supporting Actress (Jovovich) and Worst New Star (Chris Tucker), and 4 nominations at the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards, including the same actor nominations, Worst Picture, and Worst Director. That alone sums up how divided critics were on this movie.
As for myself, I’ve been meaning to see this movie for a long time, but I was never sure about whether I thought I’d like it or not. I’ve seen clips, including the “multi pass” quote, Tucker’s first scene, and a handful of other scenes. Now that I’ve seen it … I’m not entirely sure what I think. The story is hard to follow after one viewing, but I can tell there’s a lot of creativity behind it. The acting is good overall, but Tucker’s character is bordering on annoying at times, even if its boundlessly creative. The action is really well shot and directed, with touches of comedy thrown in – no complaints there. The visuals are very creative and they’ve aged fairly well, save for some late 90’s CGI in some of the early chase scenes.
There are clearly thematic elements behind the storytelling, but when the story is hard to follow after only one viewing, I don’t feel comfortable digging into them. This is the kind of movie I’d have to watch again to decide whether I like it or not. As much as I’d rather say a lot more with a blog post that’s this long, that’s all I can come up with right now.
Even the cast is somewhat divided on this movie. Willis said in a 1999 interview that “it was a real fun movie to make”, and Tucker and Jovovich also spoke favourably of their time working on the film. In an interview for the Ultimate Edition DVD, Jovovich described Besson as “the first really amazing director I had worked with. Oldman didn’t enjoy the movie however. In a 2011 interview where he was asked if he liked the film, he said, “Oh no. I can’t bear it.” He later said that “It was me signing for my supper because Luc had come in and partly financed Nil by Mouth.”
As for Willis’s performance, it’s clear that he had fun making this movie. He plays the retired soldier role quite well. Korben is clearly annoyed and confused by Tucker’s flamboyant performance as the talk show host, but his shy one word replies when the microphone is stuck in his face is always good for a laugh. This is not a dramatically heavy performance, and quite frankly, the movie never calls for it. It’s an overall goofy science fiction flick, and his lighthearted performance with a touch of his tough action star persona fits perfectly.
Because I’m not sure how I feel about the movie, I won’t quite recommend it either. It really does seem like the kind of movie that most people either love or hate, and there isn’t a lot of in-between. So please, if you’ve seen this movie, let me know what your thoughts are in the comments.
I haven’t decided exactly which movie yet, but next week I’ll be focusing on one of Willis’s more dramatic roles. It might be The Sixth Sense, it might be The Kid. I’m hoping for at least one comedy, but it might end up being an action comedy. Whatever the case, I’m planning on finishing this month off with a big dumb movie that I won’t reveal quite yet.