The Fifth Element

A rip-off movie can be annoying and boring unless it’s done with great love and enthusiasm, in which case we call it a pastiche or an homage, or some other French word. In The Fifth Element, the director Luc Besson is like a little boy showing off all his cool toys. He doesn’t care that he didn’t make the toys himself — he just wants to play with them. The movie is a gigantic Christmas tree festooned with flashing lights and intricate ornaments, with a million presents underneath.

Its ominous ads aside (“IT MU5T BE FOUND,” etc.), The Fifth Element is really a comedy — a sci-fi Cuisinart that nudges you past the point of saturation. As in his previous two cult movies (La Femme Nikita and The Professional), Besson straddles the line between straight-faced thrills and Mad-magazine parody. One thinks of Nikita stashing her rifle in a bubble bath, or the assassin in The Professional enthralled by a Gene Kelly movie. Besson’s films have an oddball personality; they’re not just grim heavy-metal thunder.

Besson concocted the plot as a teenager, and it shows. Most critics have had a tough time outlining what The Fifth Element is actually about in a point-A-to-point-B sense, and I won’t be the exception. The gist of it is that a big wad of Evil is threatening the universe, and the only one who can avert disaster is a genetically reassembled woman called Leeloo (the entrancing Milla Jovovich). She is “the fifth element” that needs to be positioned between the other four elements, which are represented by mystical stones from Egypt, and …. So what exactly was Besson smoking in high school?

Anyway, Leeloo falls into the airborne taxi of Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a 23rd-century hack who used to work for the government as some sort of secret agent. The government hires him to protect Leeloo; it also arranges — are you sitting down? — to send the pair on a vacation cruise on a ship called Fhloston Paradise. This plot turn is an excuse for Besson to indulge in outlandish costumes and cartoonish violence. It also introduces a character named Ruby Rhod, an aggressively irritating DJ who follows Korben everywhere, bleating and squealing. He’s played by Chris Tucker, who almost derails the movie all by himself.

The Fifth Element, as you may have gathered, makes no sense whatsoever. It’s a triumph of form over content, but it’s a stunning triumph. The sets, costumes, and visual effects are elaborate but never too oppressive — Besson casually tosses them off. Willis, in his appealing Die Hard mode, and the bewitching chatterbox Jovovich (who spends half the movie babbling in an alien tongue) keep the human element alive.

Then there’s the incomparable Gary Oldman, consistently hilarious as the evil bureaucrat Zorg. Oldman was given far too much scenery to chew and saliva to spew in The Professional, but his performance here is a goofball classic. The biggest laugh in the movie by far is Zorg’s priceless reaction when he opens a box that turns out not to contain what he hopes it does. Oldman isn’t even the weirdest thing in The Fifth Element, which must be a first.

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