Colombiana (2011), looks like a run-of-the-mill Hollywood action film. It is the story of Cataleya (Zoe Saldana), whose family is murdered by a Colombian drug baron, causing her to flee to the USA whilst still a little girl. There she trains as an assassin, and as a young woman seeks out her parents’ killers and takes revenge upon them. Despite how it may sound, however, Colombiana is not a run-of the-mill Hollywood action movie. Rather it is a run-of-the-mill Europa Corp actioner. This is a slightly different proposition.
Europa Corp is Luc Besson’s production company, founded in 2000. Although having produced over 80 films, and distributed over 100, Europa Corp receives extremely little in the way of critical appreciation or discussion. This is perhaps because Europa Corp is extremely adept at making European action films that can easily be mistaken for Hollywood products. In this way they are able to capture sections of the English language dominated mainstream with, for example, the Transporter films starring Jason Statham (Colombiana director Olivier Megaton also directed Transporter 3), the xenophobic post-9/11 kidnap story Taken (2008), and even two Jet Li movies – Kiss of the Dragon (2001) and Danny the Dog (a.k.a. Unleashed, 2005). Colombiana, for its part, was made for US$40m, a large budget for a European film, which was, although low in comparison to many Hollywood blockbusters, at least sufficient to enable it to play in the higher numbered screens in the multiplex.
The reception Colombiana received in certain high brow film journals reveals a great deal about why Europa Corp films are often passed over in critical debates. For instance, the UK’s Sight and Sound gave the film a negative review, noting of Besson’s involvement in the film as producer and co-scriptwriter: “it’s depressing to recall that back before he turned himself into a trash-level production line, he was the writer-director of Nikita (1990) and Léon (1994).” (1) This kind of judgement is perhaps to be expected of Sight and Sound, a journal which holds a very important ground for film culture (maintaining the importance of art cinema) even if this does at times involve a tendency to undervalue the commercial aspect of the auteur as label or brand. (2) Yet to find Colombiana wanting in this way, by criticising its lack of directorial brilliance, is to miss what the film can reveal about both the international nature of mainstream film production, and the ways in which certain European films can offer audiences a way to consider global geopolitics through the depiction of space.
Taking these two points in turn, firstly the industry. As the Sight and Sound review demonstrates, the critical silence that surrounds many Europa Corp films reflects the long established idea that European films (or rather, auteur-driven art films) are distinct from, and perhaps culturally superior to, the generic Hollywood product. Yet this elitist separation does little to reflect the realities of the convergent international markets in which European popular genres also distribute successfully (as Europa Corp’s Taxi films demonstrate, for example), and in which the numerous US independent films that circulate at festivals alongside European art films are themselves often products of subsidiary companies owned by Hollywood majors, which are in any case the products of international media conglomerates seeking to diversify into different markets. What the auteurist discourse does, unfortunately, is distract from or disguise the interconnected nature of the European and Hollywood film industries and the shared markets they target with different kinds of films (i.e. genre films for the multiplex, art films for the festival circuit and independent cinema chains). In fact, auteur criticism not only keeps alive the erroneous notion that Hollywood and Europe are culturally and industrially separate, it also soothes anxieties that European film industries may function as outsourced labour for Hollywood – a reality which is clearly seen in the way Hollywood produces films that use film companies, studios, locations and personnel in the UK for ease of production. If we step outside of this discourse however, Europa Corp provides a key example of how European film production finds ways to compete with Hollywood in the international mainstream without recourse to low or micro-budget art films promoted on the festival circuit using the auteur label.
Turning to the second of these two related points, aesthetically, what is so special about Colombiana? Well, in fact not much is new. Colombiana uses a very old technique that has been deployed by European films at various points in history, of aping the look of a Hollywood genre film, with a non-US twist. The handful of critics to focus on Europa Corp all variously acknowledge how Besson’s films inhabit generic formats associated with Hollywood, but offer an alternative view of the world. Rosanna Maule, for instance, considers the Taxi films a hybrid of the French comedy and the Hollywood action film, (3) William Brown discusses the way issues pertinent to disaffected youth in France can be addressed in Besson’s actioners, (4) and Isabelle Vanderschelden describes Europa Corp as a postnational form of French cinema. (5) In line with this body of work, but departing from the association of Besson’s films with French society and culture (an approach which Colombiana definitely does not encourage), I would like to suggest that the use of space in this particular Europa Corp film offers a different type of viewing pleasure for certain audiences worldwide – namely of a story in which a character from the global south wreaks havoc on the wealthy and corrupt in the global north. I am not suggesting that this exploitation narrative is politically correct (I will later discuss the political ambiguities of the narrative), nor that it is representative of all Europa Corp films (the production company has a very diverse portfolio after all). Nevertheless, the use of space in this film illustrates a broader trend within Europa Corp films, which can at times set them apart from Hollywood blockbusters.
Colombiana juxtaposes the spaces of wealth inequality that coexist and proliferate under globalization. As I have shown elsewhere in relation to Danny the Dog, for instance, this contrasting of the spaces of the rich and the poor as the alternating backdrops to action scenes demonstrates the wealth disparities of neoliberal globalization. (6) This is perhaps the one saving grace of Taken, arguably Europa Corp’s most internationally famous film to date, which otherwise panders to or possibly even promotes US paranoia in the wake of 9/11 by advocating a return to Cold War espionage (including the use of torture), in order to protect US interests abroad. This extremely questionable political narrative is undercut to some small degree by the film’s acknowledgement that the illegal trade in people for the sex industry thrives in Europe, under the noses of the developed world as it were, due in particular to the freeing of trade across borders after the end of the Cold War. It is not just something that occurs in the so-called “third world”, the film stresses, it is also our problem.
In Colombiana this exposition of space charts a movement across international borders that sees the USA infiltrated by a visitor from the “third world”, the Latin American assassin seeking revenge for the murder of her parents, hunting down the perpetrators who are now living in New Orleans under the protection of the CIA. The spaces that Cataleya passes through show precisely the difference between “first” and “third” worlds. Her journey begins in 1992, in a local neighbourhood in Bogotá (the film opens with aerial shots of shanty towns intercut with footage of drug war related crime), from which she must escape before crossing over into the USA to begin her training with fellow members of the Colombian diaspora in Chicago. Once a young woman, as an assassin specialising in killing wealthy criminals precisely as a retribution on the behalf of those they have exploited (embezzled or killed) to attain their wealth, she must again move seamlessly through spaces marked by contrasting wealth disparities. These include a prison, launderette and car workshop on the one hand, and a modern apartment building, bookshop and various luxury mansions (in the Caribbean and New Orleans) belonging to criminal masterminds on the other.
Seen in this light, the references to certain of Besson’s previous films which have been woven into the script, in particular the little girl seeking revenge of Leon, the female assassin’s troubled love life of Nikita and the free running of the Besson-produced Banlieue 13 (2004), whilst presumably intended to titillate film buffs who may recognise them and perhaps surprise more mainstream or younger audiences who may not, also serve an additional function. They provide a degree of agency for the peripheral Latin American figure as she negotiates her way from the global south (a free running escape from the shanty towns of Bogotá) to the global north. Noticeably, once in the USA Cataleya travels mostly by bus in order to carry out her assassinations, operating beneath the radar of the CIA and FBI. In this way a story that mirrors the trajectory of many immigrants forced to travel to the global north due to conflict or poverty is used in a way that, whilst as exploitative as we might expect from the genre, provides the chance of a rare, alternative viewing pleasure: revenge for the global south. In this Cataleya is the opposite of the martyr-like María at the centre of the US coproduction Maria Full of Grace (2004), about a pregnant Colombian drug mule who crosses over into the USA to find a new life there, and who is, by contrast to Cataleya, a very passive character. Thus whilst Colombiana literally translates as “Colombian woman” and in this sense objectifies Cataleya as an action film type (as we might expect from exploitation films), it also has the potential to suggest that she represents a population often rendered equally anonymous by immigration law and exploitative working conditions.
For this reason, Colombiana is a very different type of French blockbuster to, say, Amelie (2001), which appeals to both mainstream and art cinema audiences by wearing its national identity on its sleeve. Colombiana, by contrast, disguises its national origin to appeal to mainstream audiences who are most likely to consider the film a Hollywood production. However, in contrast to most Hollywood blockbusters, Colombiana acknowledges a perspective from the global periphery, in a story about a Colombian woman who crosses the border into the USA to wreak revenge on the corrupt and the wealthy in the global north, for the crimes committed against her family in the south. In this it is the inverse of Hollywood blockbusters like Hulk (2003) or Man on Fire (2004) which, in the post-9/11 world, see Cold Warriors returning to the “third world” to police it once again using the violent and brutal measures learned in the late twentieth century.
Following this comparison with US action films, Colombiana seems something of a one-off for Europa Corp. Taken, after all, works precisely along the same lines as the kidnap narrative of Man on Fire. So, why do I say that Colombiana is a run-of-the-mill Europa Corp film? In fact, the above notwithstanding it is possible to argue that Colombiana is as problematic a film as Taken, and not only because it was written by the same duo of Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. Were it not for the fact that Catelaya operates without the sanction of the CIA and FBI who pursue her, and that her victims include both “Latino” and “Anglo” criminals, her story of revenge driven by mourning could also be interpreted as that of a surviving remnant of the operations against drug baron Pablo Escobar in 1992-3, which involved not only the Colombian military and US special forces, DEA and CIA, but also Colombian paramilitary groups. At points the film encourages precisely such a reading. The opening titles are intercut with footage from this era, including shots of military and paramilitary men, drugs, dead bodies, and the briefest of glimpses of a picture of Escobar. This establishes the period in which Catelaya escapes Colombia as one of civil turmoil during which some Colombians fought against the drug baron. In particular, the paramilitary group ‘Los Pepes’ were apparently motivated to do so by losing loved ones to Escobar’s violence, and may perhaps have worked in tandem with the US and Colombian military against Escobar. The historical context evoked by the film’s titles, then, provides a grounding for Cataleya’s quest for revenge after her orphaning at this time. With this in mind, the film could be seen to more explicitly depict a former Drug Warrior now hiding out in the USA’s Colombian diaspora, and using her skills to enact brutal justice on US soil with intelligence from her undercover cop uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) – also a grieving survivor of the same conflicted period in Colombian history – against the surviving members of the cartel that killed her parents. When considered in this way the film seems more directly engaged with the legacy of US foreign policy, drawing on a specific Latin American country as its focus but suggesting something of the broader geopolitical consequences of intervention abroad.
Whether Colombians’s story of revenge is politically right or left wing, then, depends on how it is viewed, although if the viewer were to know anything about the history of Colombia in the early 1990s, then what may be considered a pro-US foreign policy stance seems to emerge the stronger. Is this really a story about a righteous “third world” avenger against global capitalist greed, or an attempt to ideologically police or contain “third world” populations now living in the “first”, by celebrating a character completing the unfinished business of the Drug Wars? Or again, does Cataleya’s grief-fuelled vengeance attempt to justify the continued need for US special forces operating abroad, supposedly training people like her to fight back? More pertinently for this discussion, if it is one of the latter readings, which we might perhaps expect from a Hollywood film, does the fact that Colombiana emanates from Europa Corp in France suggest that this ideological position is their own, or simply what they think US audiences may appreciate?
This terrain is too complex to provide any easy answers. After all, for those viewer who do not know Colombia’s history it is still possible to read Colombiana in a far less politically involved way, as a tale of “third world” revenge. This is perhaps not so surprising, if we consider that Europa Corp’s strategy seems to be primarily to maximise profits by diversifying output, rather than to provide any sort of sustained geopolitical critique, or avocation for that matter, of US global intervention. After all, a film like Kiss of the Dragon could be said to draw as much on Hong Kong action films as Taken and Colombiana do on the US genre.
Perhaps primarily for this reason Colombiana is definitely not a considered study of immigration or global wealth inequalities in the sense that Canana Films’ Sin Nombre (2009) or Miss Bala (2011) are, from Mexico. Nevertheless this particular Europa Corp action film offers the possibility of considering the world from a different perspective than is usually seen in a Hollywood blockbuster. This is the case even if this is a perspective offered from within the difficult to negotiate parameters of the necessarily spectacular, potentially negatively exploitative, and at best politically ambiguous confines of the mainstream action genre.
- Philip Kemp, ‘Colombiana’, Sight and Sound, 21: 11 (2011), p. 57.
- Timothy Corrigan, A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture After Vietnam (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1991), pp. 101-136.
- Rosanna Maule, ‘Du côté d’Europa, via Asia: the ‘post-Hollywood’ Besson’, Susan Hayward & Phil Powrie (eds), The Films of Luc Besson: Master of Spectacle (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), pp. 23-41, p. 28.
- William Brown, ‘Sabotage or espionage? Transvergence in the works of Luc Besson’, Studies in French Cinema, 7: 2 (2007), pp. 93-106, p. 96.
- Isabelle Vanderschelden, ‘Luc Besson’s ambition: EuropaCorp as a European Major for the 21st century’, Studies in European Cinema, 5: 2 (2008), pp. 91-104, p. 97.
- David Martin-Jones, Scotland: Global Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), pp. 164-172.