Columbiana

Beware, passing motorists
★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
2011
Director: 
Olivier Megaton
Starring: 
Zoe Saldana, Cliff Curtis, Jordi Molla
The Setup: 
Girl's parents are killed by mobster. She devotes her life to revenge.
Discussion: 

So the day New York City was supposed to be devastated by Hurricane Irene, which amounted to little more than some drizzle, I was trapped up in my apartment by the shutdown of the transit system. I had meant to go see the remake of Fright Night, which I didn't really want to see, I just wanted out of my apartment, but unfortunately the New York Times is incapable of providing accurate movie showtime information, and I got to the one theater I could walk to only to discover that Fright Night is not playing at the time listed, and a few other movies not listed were playing, of which this was one. I had almost no interest in seeing this, but hey, it kept me out of my apartment for a while, so in I went.

We open in Columbia in 1992. This mobster is receiving discs from some other guy, and they're telling each other how much they love each other, and you know the one who just delivers the info is about to be killed. Juan Valdez quietly harvests coffee in the background--or at least you wouldn't be surprised if you saw him there. The victim runs home to tell his family to pack up. His young daughter is there, sitting behind a prominently-placed glass of milk (i.e. wholesome family upbringing), and dad gives her a microchip, a card, a lottery ticket and a collectable figurine. Mom and dad run off, and the girl hears gunfire, knowing they've been killed. A henchman comes in, asking for the microchip, and the girl gives him a knife in the hand for not using the magic word. She then reveals herself to be a junior ninja who whips herself out the window, then flips off through the neighborhood using that urban jumping technique, whatever that's supposed to be. There's a big chase, she escapes, delivers the microchip to the American consulate (we never find out what's supposed to be on it), and is delivered to America, where she quickly escapes captivity and makes her way to Chicago.

There she makes contact with family member Emilo, first seen in a dingy back room, beating a prisoner tied to a chair in the middle of a room. He takes her home and she meets his elderly mother, and sleeps in a room with a prominently-placed poster for De Palma's Scarface. Emilo takes her to be enrolled in a school, but Cataleya, that's the girl, doesn't want any of that school bullshit, she just wants to be trained as a killer. And here's where we have one of the most incredible things I've ever seen in a movie.

Emilo says "You want killing? THIS is what you want?" pulls out a gun, and starts shooting up a random passing motorist. The car goes off the road, hits a fire hydrant, and we see the engine start on fire. We never find out if the driver was killed or not. But look, Emilo was making a POINT, okay? So it's perfectly fine for him to kill anyone he wants. His point, by the way, is that if Cataleya wants to be a contract killer, she will need a basic education, which I think is there to gain this movie "moral" points, although we never see Cataleya use the education she supposedly gets for the rest of the film [except for her advanced engineering, in just a moment]. Anyway, the shooting took place in front of at least fifteen witnesses. And the police suddenly come roaring up! ...And Emilo and Cataleya just slowly amble away, no one stopping them. And the whole thing is never brought up again. Honestly, can you believe this?

Years pass, and we next meet Cataleya in the form of Zoe Saldana, being arrested for drunken driving. She is thrown in the clink! But also arrested that day is some other thug, who I've never seen before, but is apparently on her hit list, and at night Cataleya performs an elaborate breakout, moves over to the guys' cell, assassinates him, and return to her own cell. You wouldn't think this jail for high security prisoners would have cells with easily-accessible ventilation ducts with capacity for a person to move about easily, but there you go. Also, I guess Cataleya did pay attention in school, because she executes a simple power-outage solution involving calculating the rate of dripping from a pinprick in a plastic cup, and the precise weight that will cause a spoon to tip over at the perfect time. She's a ninja AND an engineer. She is released from the prison just before the place is locked down, peeling off her fake fingerprints. This woman really is an urban James Bond.

Now things fall into a routine. Emilo warns against her methods and her personal vendetta, while also hiring her for discreet hit jobs, for which he supplies her funds (I was wondering where all her financing came from). So it seems that she's a contract killer for a living, who is executing her own personal revenge as she goes along. This results in her killing various people, without us ever really being sure if they're personal victims or contract targets. We're also told that grandma misses her terribly, and are supposed to believe they have some deep personal connection, although we haven't really had any evidence of this. She also has a white boyfriend who is a successful artist--there are never UNsuccessful artists in movies, or hot contract killers wouldn't be hanging out with them--and we're supposed to engage in the tragedy of Cateleya being unable to open herself emotionally, although we have no sense that there is anything to their relationship except periodic sex appointments. We also see Cataleya's awesome urban loft, which is tricked-out with high-tech security, leaving her to feel comfortable dancing around without a bra.

So she kills a bunch of people who are like--who ARE these people? No matter. Cataleya proves herself to be a genius killing machine, with a solution for every possible challenge, which makes her a tiny bit boring, as she's never vulnerable. Eventually we have the "price of vengeance" content, meaning that people close to her are killed, then abruptly it's time for her to kill the two guys we recognize as responsible for her parents' deaths, which she executes with a slightly longer fight than the others. Along the way she says that her parents we killed "right in front of me," which we have been shown to be not actually true. There's also an FBI guy after her, who goes a long time assuming that "We're not looking for a woman. That's not possible."

Once it's over you see that it's basically a quite cheap exploitation movie, with allusions to other movies of the type in place of actual characters or connecting tissue. We know she has a deep connection to Grandma because it's that way in other movies. We know her quest for revenge is taking a personal toll on her, because that's how it is in other movies. We know she'll always be one step ahead of the FBI because that's how it is in the Bourne movies. This is one of those films that says "You liked these elements in other films, now here they all are, in one movie!" Only without any depth or any but the thinnest of connecting threads. But, the movie seems to say, you're too stupid to care, and given the audience this is aimed at, they're probably right.

Now I hate to be the old grandpa, but what is this movie saying morally? This is one of those movies where the characters see only the layer of circumstance that affects THEM, but nothing beyond. So it would seem that Cataleya's parents were not exactly a positive force in society--her dad was involved with these criminals--but they were killed, so Cataleya is going to kill their killers. Cataleya herself is a contract killer, which is FINE, if not awesome, so she can kill others, who no doubt have loved ones just like herself, but she is justified in taking revenge on anyone who kills anyone close to HER. It's that sort of logic of "Sure I'm a car thief, but if you steal MY car, I am entitled to kill you." And the point of view of the movie supports this logic. This movie is suffused with the sanctity of FAMILY, i.e. that it's no problem to kill anyone--even random drivers-by--but if someone kills a member of your family, THAT is justification for revenge. That other victims might ALSO have families that care about them is a step beyond what this movie is capable of contemplating. And quite possibly for its intended audience, this logic is rock-solid. Which can lead other viewers, say ones who have college educations, to only further denigrate the types of people portrayed in the film, and conclude that they see only the situation that affects THEM, in large part because they are simply too stupid to grasp anything else. So while some might see this film as a statement of empowerment, and it seems to be intended as such, just the slightest widening of perspective reveals it as quite denigrating to its own characters. And ultimately it seems like the point of view of the movie is simply too dumb to realize this.

Yeah, so an entertaining enough way to pass a few hours, but ultimately empty and a little bit stupid. I get that this is just a modern exploitation movie, but Christ, look how much greater depth Foxy Brown has than this. Or if you want a contemporary parallel, look at Point Blank, another non-stop chase thriller that still manages to have well-drawn characters and a moral center. This is just potato chip culture, meant to efficiently part you from your money and taste good going down, regardless that it might make you sick later.

Should you watch it: 

You can kill time in more rewarding ways.