When I was younger, French writer/producer/director Luc Besson was one of my absolute favorite filmmakers. The first time I saw Le Femme Nikita and The Professional I was blown away by both his visual style and his ability to create memorable characters that did interesting things. He reinforced these feelings with the highly underrated The Fifth Element, another visual masterpiece that had that "European" feel while also being accessible to American audiences. But after that, Besson's work took a turn for the worse. Films like The Messenger, Angel-A, and the animated Arthur and the Invisible trilogy failed to match his previous efforts and doubt crept into his fans' minds that maybe the French filmmaker had lost his touch. However, in recent years, he has been making a bit of a comeback. With The Lady and now The Family, Besson proves that he still has what it takes to create interesting cinema with a unique style and visual splendor that is all his own.
The Manzoni family was one of the biggest names in the New York mafia scene. That is, until Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) decided to turn state's evidence and testify against his former bosses. To protect he and his family, the FBI (headed up by Tommy Lee Jones) places the Manzoni's in the witness protection program and sends them to a small French village hoping that they will be able to blend into the local scenery and stay hidden. Gio's wife and two children are not happy about the move but are loyal to their husband and father so they follow him willingly. However, they soon find that it's not as easy to escape their old ways simply by a change of scenery. As Manzoni's (now known as Fred Blake) boss sends his hit men out into the world to find him, Gio struggles to forge a new identity that doesn't involve smashing people's faces in or, in simpler terms, that which him what he is - one of the most ruthless mafia men ever to walk the streets of New York.
Like most of Besson's films, The Family isn't that heavy on plot. Instead, Besson devotes time to developing his characters. In the first ten minutes of the film we find out that Gio is still a ruthless killer with a temper that goes off at the slightest hint of disobedience. His wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) tries to adapt to the ways of of the French people but when she hears the local supermarket attendant saying bad things about her she ditches that notion in favor of burning down his store. Maggie and Gio's kids, use manipulation, bribery, and violence to quickly gain power in their new school. The funny thing is that although we should hate these characters for the despicable things they do, we actually find them pretty amusing. Even though they are violent (and I mean violent), they are never cruel for cruelty's sake. Besson plays on the long-time notion that his countrymen are rude by always giving the Manzoni's justification for their actions through the way that they are treated by the townspeople.
Besson's visual style is on display here and he does not disappoint. Love him or hate him, you can't deny that he knows how to compose interesting shots overflowing with craft. Those of you that appreciate this kind of thing (many don't) will be enamored with The Family for its slickness. In many ways, this film feels like the most stylish that Besson has made since The Professional, which is in my humble opinion, one of the most well-shot films made in the 90's. Besson and long-time cinematographer Thiery Arbogast know how to frame exciting action sequences and many of the same compositions that stood out in movies like Le Femme Nikita and The Professional are present here too.
The Family definitely has its flaws. The plot is pretty simple and downright boring at times. Audience members who like a lush plot full of meaning and unexpected turns will be disappointed. There are also a few moments that just don't make sense and come off as totally silly and unbelievable. While the premise is funny and captures our attention for a the first 1/3 of the film, eventually it wears thin and all that we are left with are the characters, performances, and the film's unique style. Fortunately for us, that is still enough to make The Family a memorable experience.
The Family is definitely worth checking out. Casual fans may be a little bored/shocked with the simple plot and over-the-top violence but followers of Besson definitely do NOT want to miss this one. It's his best in quite some time and gives us hope that the writer/director hasn't lost his touch. Now if only he'd give us The Professional 2 (aka Matilda)!