REVIEW: Zoe Saldana, Colombiana Impress With Crisp, Eye-Popping Action

Movieline Score:

Shamelessly entertaining when it's not just silly, Colombiana begins with a young girl trading one shady underworld for another. The first is that of Bogotá in 1992, where a deal between two heavies is going so well it can only mean someone's about to die. That someone is the father of Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg), a schoolgirl who absorbs her father's goodbye -- a speech of family loyalty and legacy so archetypal Al Pacino mutters fragments of it in his sleep -- with unblinking shock. "In this world," an enemy henchman (Jordi Mollà) tells her as her parents lay dead, "Smart girls always get what they want." With that Cataleya's trance is broken, and a stabbing followed by a spectacular foot chase announces her transformation into a pint-sized badass.

The shadow announcement made by that sequence is that "this world" is the brainchild co-writer (with Robert Mark Kamen) and producer Luc Besson. "Vengeance is beautiful," is Colombiana's tagline, though it may not be smart, or even particularly specific. The vague provenance of the microchip that Cataleya winds up barfing onto an American embassy desk is part of the film's passing acknowledgement of everything that is not the body of the adult Cataleya (Zoe Saldana) in head-cracking, lipstick-signing motion.

Having slipped the Feds, the orphaned Cataleya buses it to Chicago, where her murderer-for-hire uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) lives. When she tells him that she wants to study guns, not geometry, Emilio fires a few frustrated rounds into a playground. The audacity! How could a mere child get the fact that working through one's grief (Emilio's son was also killed) by becoming a vengeful assassin means "you have to learn to understand how to be psychological"? And stuff?

All you really have to learn to understand about the skills of the grown-up Cataleya is that she has earned the trophy of elite female assassins all over the world: Michael Vartan. By day, Cataleya kills for money -- Ponzi schemers and such -- but she moonlights as a mortal debt collector, picking off members of the Colombian cartel who killed her parents, one by one. Barefoot and crafty, she savors the elaborate daring of getting booked into a prison just to get a clear shot at a mark being held there overnight. In catsuits, swimsuits, and skimpy underthings, Saldana is as potently elusive as a shadow can be. Cataleya's trick is staying low to the ground; with feline confidence she slips into ventilation ducts, down sewer grates, and through subway tunnels, never once mistaking herself. The extent to which Cataleya's life depends on the continuation of the game -- the unquenchable killer's inner life -- is not part of this ride. When we do stop for ungainly confrontations with Emilio or Vartan, who plays her clueless boyfriend, the momentum of the pure cinema action scenes is thrown.

And man, it is no small momentum. French director Olivier Megaton's chosen last name (he was born Fontana) is just the first in a long line of things he's not kidding about. Along with a spectacularly physical performance by Saldana (although a scene of the anti-heroine shimmying with cool self-satisfaction feels corny and stale compared to the frank, appreciative mirror-gazing of her counterpart in Carlos), Colombiana features some of the best frame-for-frame shots you will see this year. Megaton's weakness for big money moments feels old-fashioned in the best way: Who needs hyperkinetic camerawork or budget-busting effects when a director knows what to do with a woman, a shark pool, and a big fat drug lord? The action is as originally conceived as it is coherent; if it can't quite make up for the hoariness of a lone FBI agent (Lennie James) cornering his unlikely killer with the aid of pure coincidence and bollock-y face recognition software, similarly fermented dialogue, and the primal but vacant gaze of its star, Colombiana comes close enough to make you forget to care.