Luc Besson is responsible for two of the greatest assassin films of all time. In Leon: The Professional and La Femme Nikita the French writer/director presented not just remarkable fight scenes and high tension, but rich characters living isolated lives and resisting close relationships. With such amazing credits to his name it’s hard to understand what exactly what was going through his mind while he and Robert Mark Kamen were writing Colombiana, a movie as shallow and unoriginal as they come.
The film opens in Colombia where a young girl named Cataleya Restrepo (Zoe Saldana) sees her parents murdered at the hands of mobsters commanded by a man named Don Luis (Beto Benites). Managing to survive on her own, she travels to Chicago to live with her hard-edged uncle (Cliff Curtis) and has him train her as a killer. After fifteen years she has become an elite assassin with plans for revenge against those that took her family away, but with a smart FBI agent (Lennie James) right on her tail, she needs to execute before it’s too late.
If that sounds like an intensely generic plot outline that because it is, and at no point during Colombiana does the movie try to right that wrong. Everything about the film, from the characters to the structure, is cribbed from a thousand other examples of the revenge subgenre. But even when the movie tries to copy something that worked in Leon: The Professional or La Femme Nikita it’s done in a haphazard way that ends up being a detriment to the film. Much like how Leon had Mathilda and Nikita had Marco, Cataleya has a relationship with a normal person, an artist played by Michael Vartan, but the script makes little attempt to establish their personal connection. Instead of being an access point to a world outside of death and guns, it simply looks like he’s her occasional booty call.
Then there’s the story’s motivator: Cataleya’s mission for revenge. Again, this is where any semblance of character development would have been great, but a complete lack of exposition also hurts the film. After the protagonist has grown up and become a cleaner it’s shown that she she tags all her victims to get Don Luis's attention, but it's never explained how the men she murdered are connected to the Colombian kingpin.
That’s nothing, however, compared to the fact that Cataleya and Don Luis never share a single scene together in the entire film. Instead, the hero’s contact with her enemies is entirely limited to a conversation she has with Luis’ right-hand-man, Marco (Jordi Mollà), who was present when her parents were killed. Possibly a result of the film’s PG-13 rating, there’s no moment where the audience learns to despise the villain, like when Gary Oldman slaughters Natalie Portman’s family in The Professional. Moviegoers can understand why Cataleya wants revenge, but because the plot and characters are so undeveloped they’re never given a reason to be invested.
The action and fight sequences, shot competently by director Olivier Megaton, prevent the film from completely flat lining. While the movie doesn’t have many insane, explosive scenes that make it feel as though the characters have jet fuel pumping through their veins, the filmmaker succeeds in doing a lot with a little and always provides the audience with spatial awareness and context. The bigger action beats are largely relegated to the final act of the film, but Megaton also does a solid job of building tension while Cataleya executes two hits in the middle of the film, one in a prison and another in a Mexican estate.
Action aside, what ultimately kills the film is a complete lack of originality or initiative. The plot and characters are paint-by-numbers and even those elements are put together sloppily. The entire premise hangs on the idea that an assassin with a need revenge for revenge is more than enough for audiences, but that’s simply not true. A movie needs depth, it needs motive and it needs emotion. Colombiana has none of these things.