This is one fantastic space opera from French filmmaker Luc Besson, who doesn’t have much to envy to George Lucas… besides the fact that the “Star Wars” creator thought of all this 20 years ago. That doesn’t mean that “The Fifth Element” isn’t an interesting film. It stars the charismatic and manly Bruce Willis as Korben Dallas, a former Space Marine or something who retired after his wife left him. He now lives in a futuristic but crummy pad in South Brooklyn and earns a living driving a flying cab. He’s pretty disillusioned, relying on wry sarcasm to keep himself going. Then one day, hope falls on him from the sky, literally. The woman of his dreams, a sexy redhead named Leeloo (Milla Jovovitch), crashes into his cab with the police after her. Forgetting all about common sense, Dallas helps her escape the cops and obeys when she asks him to take her to some priest named Cornelius.

Things then get much more complicated: the girl happens to be the fifth element which, combined with sacred stones representing wind, water, earth and fire, will form an immensely powerful weapon that will destroy the humongous ball of pure evil heading for earth. A lot of people are after these stones: the President (Tommy “Tiny” Lister Jr.) and his men, who don’t want their planet to be destroyed. Then there’s Zorg, a ridiculously malicious business man (Gary Oldman) who wants to capture the power of the evil meteor, to rule the world I guess, and the Mangalores, a race of badass alien mutated pitbulls who just want it before Zorg to sell it expensively to him after. Oh, and there’s that Cornelius fella who’s the last of an order of priests who have been charged by a race of big armored aliens to protect the Egyptian temple where the thing with the five elements will take place.

The film isn’t that hard to understand: it just doesn’t make much sense! But it’s as fun as it is goofy, and Besson is an exceptional filmmaker. His film is jam packed with ideas and memorable sights, thanks to very impressive special effects and a lot of imagination. There’s the New York of the future, one of the most visually stunning cityscapes ever imagined, complete with extremely high skyscrapers and countless flying vehicles. There’s the spaceships, which don’t look very practical but are at least original and look real cool. There’s the out-of-this world art direction and the insane costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, as well as some of the most ridiculous haircuts since Princess Leia’s buns. And then there are the throwaway gags, like cigarettes that are 3/4 filter, a robot barman, a lethal weapon that’s simultaneously a flame thrower, a machine gun, a rocket launcher and a bomb. Besson’s movie always looks gorgeous and it feature some amazing editing (just check out the kung fu/opera montage!).

Unfortunately, the writing really isn’t first rate. Besson has been known to write excellent gritty thrillers such as “Nikita” and “The Professional”, but “The First Element”, which he wrote as a teenager, is a step back. I don’t mind the one-dimensional characters and the sci-fi nonsense, but I really could have done without the unfunny, very French humor. For example, midway through the movie, Dallas is joined in his mission by a frenetic, hyperactive, high-pitched DJ (Chris Tucker) who’s kind of funny at first, but gets annoying after a couple of minutes. The movie also oddly lacks urgency despite the 48 hour countdown to Armageddon, maybe because a ball of pure evil is such an impersonal, uninteresting menace, and the villains are more laughable than threatening. The movie eventually grows a heart, as Bruce Willis begins to love Jovovitch, but it’s a clear case of too little, too late. Still, “The Fifth Element” gives you more than enough exciting action scenes and breath-taking images to be very entertaining and memorable.

The above is my original 1997 review. I wrote a new piece on the film, which I now love more than ever (Chris Tucker included!), on my new site in French