[box cover]

The Fifth Element: Ultimate Edition

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

Starring Bruce Wills, Milla Jovovich, and Gary Oldman

Written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
Directed by Luc Besson


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Review by Dawn Taylor                    


For lovers of comic books (also known as "graphic novels," manga, or bandes dessinees, depending on your country of origin) there have been few live-action films that have come as close to replicating that art form as 1997's The Fifth Element. Director Luc Besson (Leon, La Femme Nikita), a lover of comics since childhood, grabbed two of France's hottest comics artists — Jean Claude Mezieres, famed creator of "Valerian," and Jean Giraud, aka "Moebius" — and created a colorful, exciting, visually sumptuous sci-fi comic book come to life. It's a film that doesn't appeal to everyone. Some people absolutely despise it. Most of those people, however, aren't the sort who read comics — and as The Fifth Element truly is an issue of "Heavy Metal" magazine come to life (more so, ironically, in many ways than the 1981 animated Heavy Metal film managed), it's understandable if the movie grates on those expecting a standard, slick Hollywood sci-fi adventure.

Bruce Willis plays Korben Dallas, a bad-boy New York taxi driver in the 23rd century who has a cute-meet with a gorgeous, scantily clad redhead (Milla Jovovich) when she comes crashing through the roof of his flying taxi. What he doesn't know is that Leeloo is "The Fifth Element," a perfect being whose return has been prophesied, destined to save the world from an unspeakable Evil lurking in the murky blackness of space. Giving Evil a hand is a human named Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), a Hitleresque, half-bald psychopath with a Texas drawl who's planning to send his alien army off to gather up the remaining four Elements so that Evil can obliterate the planet. On the fabulous resort Fhloston Paradise, Korben, Leeloo, a priest named Cornelius (Ian Holm), and a hyperkinetic media star named Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) all intersect to battle the forces of badness and save mankind.

At $90 million, The Fifth Element was the most expensive film yet undertaken by the French, and they weren't eager at first to open their wallets. It was only after Besson suspended pre-production and went off to make the very successful Leon (known as The Professional stateside) that investors were willing to bankroll his pricey sci-fi action comedy. With fabulously kitschy costuming by Jean Paul Gaultier (he of the pointy-bra look favored by the early-'90s Madonna) and state-of-the-art effects by Digital Domain, the awe-inspiring visuals created by Mezieres and Moebius were brought hilariously to life on-screen. Besson's 23rd century New York City is a teeming, organic mass of busy-ness, as believable as it is fantastic — in fact, every set, every vehicle, every gizmo in the film fulfills real-world functions along with offering eye-catching visual design. It's a future world that feels like it could still be very real, giving a concrete foundation to the silly comic-book adventure that unfolds.

Milla Jovovich, then just 19, is brilliant as Leeloo, a perfect being recreated from a DNA sample and dropped into a very strange new world. Memorizing a Russian-sounding alien language invented by Besson, enduring her own stunts, and sustaining masses of bruises throughout filming, she's tough, sexy and adorable throughout. Willis, who's always been underrated as an actor due to his penchant for action-hero roles, is at the top of his game here — funny and charming, a little bit awkward, but rough-and-tumble enough to save the day. All the supporting cast — even the screechy, annoying Tucker — is beautifully placed, and all of the performers bloom under the hand of Besson, who has a canny knack for bringing out the best in actors. Oldman chews scenery with abandon, understanding his role as a comic-book villain, and he gets many of the film's best moments, as do actors in smaller roles like ex-wrestler Tiny Lister as the President (!) and Brion James as a befuddled Army general.

*          *          *

Columbia TriStar's second DVD release of The Fifth Element (or the third, if you count the "Superbit" version) is entitled the "Ultimate Edition," leading one to believe that this is the final, definitive version (we'll see, won't we?) — even though the title's been released a couple of times before, this one offers not just the Superbit anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) of the film, but a second disc chock-full of extras, too. However, without a commentary track it's hard to consider this disc "ultimate" — yes, "making-of" spots are nice, but this cult favorite deserves a Besson/Willis/Jovovich yack-track. The Superbit video is exceptionally good — this is a detail-rich, vividly colorful film, and it looks great here. The audio, in DD 5.1 or DTS (with an array of optional subtitles) is excellent, giving all of the speakers a hearty workout with deep space booms, explosions, gun effects, and Eric Serra's eclectic classical-meets-hip-hop score. The film is augmented on Disc One with a trivia subtitle track, which provides a running commentary of mostly useless tidbits during the film.

The plentiful extras on Disc Two are divided between a number of submenus — The Visual Element offers a fascinating 18-minute featurette about the work of French comics legends Mezieres and Moebius (Jean Giraud) on the film's art direction, plus tests for seven of the film's sets; The Digital Element (9 min.) covers the work by L.A.'s Digital Domain effects house; The Star Element is a handful of four-to-twelve-minute featurettes on Willis, Jovovich, Tucker, and the film's extras; The Alien Element is all about the design of the non-human characters, with featurettes and screen tests; The Fashion Element consists of a featurette (7 min.) on Gaulthier's designs, with costume tests; and The Diva is all about the creation of the ethereal opera singer, which offers a featurette (16 min.) plus makeup tests and outtakes. (However, it's important to note that these are the extras on the Region 1 "Ultimate Edition" DVD — the Region 2 disc contains entirely different extras for some reason, including a commentary track by members of the special effects crew). There's also a poster gallery and previews, and all of the featurettes are available with optional Spanish or Portuguese subtitles.

— Dawn Taylor



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