Besson’s Family a Violently Entertaining Mob
Fred Blake (Robert De Niro) and his family are not who they claim to be. Sure, he, wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and kids Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo) look like your typical American family taking a prolonged break from it all in by planting roots in a small provincial French township, but that wouldn’t be the truth. Turns out Fred was once a big time New York mobster who turned informant, and now with a $20-million price on his head it’s up to FBI Special Agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) to make sure he and his family don’t end up dead.
Thus the French relocation. Problem is, the Blakes, as they now call themselves, aren’t exactly great at keeping a low profile. Maggie is prone to transforming supermarkets into powder kegs. Warren sets up an intricate menagerie of all sorts of not exactly legal rackets in his new high school. Belle is looking for the right pretty face to help her escape this family and start a new life out on her own. As for Fred, well he’s trying his best, even if said best includes sending nefarious plumbers to the hospital and shaking down chemical company CEOs to stop them from polluting the local water supply. But it’s his cover as an ex-pat author that has Stansfield most worried, the thought his charge might actually write down, let alone publish, all of his dirty deeds as a high-ranking member of the Mob a thing he’d rather not contemplate.
Based on the book Malivita by Tonino Benacquista, The Family is an odd, European flavored comedy-thriller that fits co-writer/director Luc Besson’s tendencies perfectly. Very much in the same vein as La Femme Nikita and The Professional, the movie is a freewheeling mishmash of genres and ideas that always feels on the verge of spiraling out of control. Also like those films it ends up being monstrously entertaining, and while not nearly as perfect as those two classics have proven to be over the last few of decades that still makes this crazy genre hybrid a lot of fun to watch nonetheless.
Not that the many tonal imbalances aren’t distracting. The film shifts gears from comedy to drama to thriller to action to comedy again at the flip of a switch, the somewhat winsome denouement not quite jiving with a lot of what came before it. A key subplot revolving around Belle and an older University student about to take a series of important tests doesn’t work out satisfactorily, Agron’s character not fleshed out enough to make their relationship make a whole lot of sense. Maggie also doesn’t stay entirely consistent as a character as well, and if not for Pfeiffer’s commanding presence I’m sure I’d have taken some issue with a few of this wickedly cutthroat wife and mother’s actions during the film’s bullet-riddled climactic stretch.
Yet as flaws are concerned these didn’t affect my enjoyment near as much as they maybe should have. Besson directs with his typically energetic, oddly grounded flair, the film having a hyper-realistic quality that would almost be absurd if it wasn’t so darn effective. As for his and Michael Caleo’s script, it’s a chaotic hotbed of mob-themed commentary and homage, running roughshod over the genre while at the same time paying proper respect to it seemingly at the very same time.
The film’s most triumphant moment is the one where it could have fallen to pieces and become unintentionally laughable, Besson throwing De Niro into the surreal situation of having to watch his and Martin Scorsese’s (this picture’s executive producer) Goodfellas and then offer up a commentary of it to a room full of captivated French cinephiles. Yet everything comes together nicely, the sequence having a charming, if slightly tragic, ambience that fits the picture beautifully.
Not that I guess I should be surprised. The Family is Besson’s way of having a trio of talented actors riff on some of their most cherished personas and performances, Jones doing a world-weary Gerard (The Fugitive) while Pfeiffer has a blast resurrecting a two decades older version of Angela de Marco from Married to the Mob. As for De Niro, his connections to past genre entries speaks for itself, and it’s apparent he’s having a terrific time taking old characters out for a walk in order to see if he can squeeze any additional life out of them.
The climactic shift in tone is jarring, the level of violence and carnage suitably shocking if not keeping with the semi-comedic nature of the majority of the film. But Besson stages it all gloriously, frequent collaborator Thierry Arbogast’s (The Fifth Element, The Lady) cinematography helping the director achieve a visual magnetism that’s richly dynamic. The bloodletting may turn off some, especially as it basically comes out of nowhere, but for my part I found this gear shift was necessary, the violence driving home what was on the line for this family and why it is they continue to stick together as a unit.
The Family will not be for everyone, the nature of the story being told, the level of violence and the fact the main characters aren’t the greatest human beings on the planet pretty much guaranteeing this would be the case. But I get what Besson is doing here, enjoying myself immensely for all 111 minutes. Even though it fires a couple of blanks, the movie hits its targets far more often than it misses them, the overwhelming firepower that De Niro, Pfeiffer, Jones and Besson bring to the table undeniably impressive.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)