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by Andrew Jack

PARIS, 25 July 1997 - If the French film director Luc Besson has done much to turn his back on his own cultural roots and to prostrate himself in front of his new American masters, his latest offering shows that he has at least been able to transport one Gallic concept across the Atlantic: that of "déjà vu".

A science fiction film? Evil aliens attacking the inter-galactic Federation of good-guys? The search for the mystical objects that can save the universe from total destruction? Hardly the most original of themes. Rather - at a time when NASA's Pathfinder has just touched down on Mars - a demonstration that fact can be far more interesting than fiction.

A city of the future with levitating vehicles and sinister policemen, à la Bladerunner? A hint of Middle Eastern mysticism, à la Indiana Jones? Endless mindless battles, à la Terminator? A rapid inter-cutting of scenes - between a copulating couple, an explosion, and a plane taking-off - à la Delicatessen? Hardly the most fresh of cinematic inspiration, even if the final example is at least borrowed from a French film.

A politically-correct cast? One in which all the top-ranking goodies are humans and those who help them assume a palatable human form? And the scenes on Earth take place mainly in assorted parts of New York? Hardly the most adventurous, untested territory for a sci-fi film, albeit one targetted at a certain middle-American market.

It is true that Besson has provided some useful introductions in the film for his French friends. The director-actor-writer Mathieu Kassowitz has a walk-on part. Jean-Paul Gaultier dresses up all the characters as far as outrageously possible. Even the rai singer Khaled gets a place on the sound-track.

They at least benefit from a form of plugging of their wares, which is a little more useful and subtle than the unashamed use of commercial product placement from which McDonald's has benefited, with lengthy and no doubt highly profitable screen time.

It would hardly be destroying The Fifth Element to reveal what happens. After all, not much does, and even that in a rather predictable way. It is the action that counts. And yet that has also been rather better done elsewhere.

All our hopes are pinned on one man (Bruce Willis) who has a harder time saying "I love you" than he does killing dozens of ugly monsters, but who manages to ultimately do both, emerging with scarcely a scratch on his cheek to earn at the climax of the film a naked night with a super-human red-head in a "regeneration cabinet".

His enemies include the ubiquitous Gary Oldman, whose principal (and unattained) artistic challenge in the film seems to be the battle between glottal stops and drawled vowels as he tries to reconcile his uncertain grasp of cockney and deep American south accents. And who wields a weapon of such absurd ugliness and cumbersomeness that it easily out-guns the vile aliens against whom it is used.

There are some bursts of freshness, not least the high-camp inter-galactic television show hosted by Ruby Rhod (ho, ho) played by Chris Tucker, or the bizarre flying boot in which friendly aliens who promise to save Life from Evil bounce around the universe.

But generally, if our descendants and those on other, yet uncharted, planets look back on this work in the 23rd century, they are likely to be struck above all by a rather staid, Americo- and comtemporo-centric view of the future, in a film in danger of disappearing up its own black hole.

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