Reel Rumbles #25: “The Fifth Element” vs. “Men in Black”
In This Corner…
In 1997, space was a quirky place. Paul Verhoeven went bug-squishing in Starship Troopers. A pre-Resident Evil Paul W.S. Anderson and a pre-Hellboy Guillermo Del Toro gave us very different sci-fi/horror flicks in Event Horizon and Mimic. And Alien Resurrection made the venerable franchise a little weirder under the pen of Joss Whedon and the direction of French indie favorite Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Arguably, the two most successful offerings, however, gave us very unique takes on science fiction (at least from a visual standpoint). One was the surreal and visually unique pet project of a French writer/director who nowadays is better known for writing and producing more generic action fare such as Taken and the Transporter franchise. The other was based on a comic book (back when such things were a little less common), was a bona fide box office smash (coming only behind the then-highest-grossing-movie-of-all-time in the year’s earnings) and cemented Will Smith‘s reputation as a box-office king (fresh as he was off the previous year’s Independence Day). Both films packed plenty of chuckles–intentional and, perhaps, otherwise.
To twist a tagline from that Alien franchise: In space, no one can hear you laugh. But back in ’97, the laughter was heard in multiplexes everywhere. Come enter the Reel Rumbles ring as we take a stroll thirteen years down memory lane and bust heads with some freaky aliens in The Fifth Element vs. Men in Black.
Round One: Story
The Fifth Element is almost a bit of a Star Wars redux: There’s the rescue of a “princess”, an aged mystic (or priest, in this case, portrayed by Sir Ian Holm) who has all the answers, a climactic battle between firmly delineated sides of good and evil. The film’s hero, Korben Dallas (as played by Bruce Willis), even comes across as an amalgam of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. There are plenty of unique beats in The Fifth Element, but as far as the main thrust of the story goes, it’s not terribly groundbreaking. Good vs. Evil; as straight-ahead as stories come.
Rather than being set hundreds of years in the future, Men in Black takes place in the present day (1997), with a simple, but fun, premise: Aliens are real, and they live among us. Mostly in New York. Your third-grade teacher who most kids swore was from another planet? She was. Sylvester Stallone? Dennis Rodman? Aliens. Cab drivers? Not as many as you might think, actually. Most of the aliens are passing through, or political refugees, and the Men in Black are the top-secret government agents who police their activities on Earth…with the general public being none the wiser. Of course, aliens living on Earth have been portrayed before, but Men in Black‘s idea of a top-secret government organization policing the activities of alien citizens is fun, and funny.
Advantage: Men in Black, 10-8.
Round Two: Script
What’s a “Fifth Element”? What’s all this gobbledygook about saving the Earth with four mysterious stones? Let’s face it: We’re not watching The Fifth Element because it was written by William Shakespeare or David Mamet. We’re watching it to see some cool visual effects and a fantastic vision of a futuristic New York City. We’re watching it to see Bruce Willis and a scantily-clad Milla Jovovich kick some alien butt. The strengths of The Fifth Element are far more in its visual style than in its script.
Men in Black also gives us some fantastic visuals, with a myriad of bizarre alien creatures designed by makeup effects guru Rick Baker, and some awesome set design, particularly in MIB headquarters itself. But what it also offers is a wonderfully unique concept, and great banter between its two leads. Tommy Lee Jones is the perfect straight-man foil for Will Smith‘s cocksure rookie, and their dialogue–particularly with each other–is spot-on hilarious.
Both films are a visual ride, but Men in Black has the cracking dialogue and more unique story to back it up, thus winning this round, 10-8.
Round Three: Performances
As stated before, Bruce Willis plays Korben Dallas as a bit of a cross between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, with a healthy dose of John McClane for good measure. Always a capable and likeable action hero, he falls pretty squarely into the McClane mold here, and much of the color in The Fifth Element‘s cast comes from it supporting players.
Milla Jovovich as Leeloo is pretty impressive; here, she shows early on the knack for action roles that will serve her well in the future (see the Resident Evil series). Equally impressive is her utter mastery of Leeloo’s alien language, created by writer/director Luc Besson. (Reportedly, director and actress even carried out conversations in Leeloo’s language on set.) Bright orange hair aside, she provides color to a colorful film in more ways than one.
The standout in the cast, though is Gary Oldman, of course. As the loathsome Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg, he’s not quite as unhinged as his character in The Professional (his previous collaboration with Besson), but he makes the scenery-chewing best of every moment he’s on screen.
Where The Fifth Element loses points in this round, however, is in the person of Chris Tucker, whose portrayal of radio jockey Ruby Rhod is apropos, but he gets entirely too much screen time, and becomes grating after a (short) while.
The cast of Men in Black, meanwhile, comes out swinging, led by Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones and box office Golden Boy Will Smith, as MIB agents K and J. Jones is the perfect foil to Smith’s cracking wise, and they prove to be a crackerjack team on screen. (It’s hard to believe that actors like Chris O’Donnell and David Schwimmer were considered for Smith’s role!) In addition, Jones almost single-handedly grounds the film in some kind of reality, as cracks appear in K’s steely veneer when he considers the life he left behind to join MIB. He’s easily the most three-dimensional character in either of these films.
Of other conspicuous note is Vincent D’Onofrio as a farmer named Edgar, who quickly falls prey to a grisly fate, when his insides are sucked out so that he can serve as the “skin” for an evil alien space bug. D’Onofrio’s physicality in the role is amazing (apparently, he used knee braces to help with his distinctive walk), and he garners a lot of laughs while maintaining the character’s menace.
When the dynamic team of Jones and Smith is put up against the grating noise that Chris Tucker produces in The Fifth Element, it’s not too hard to award this round to Men in Black, 10-9.
An interesting side note: Both films choose to excise their very effective human villains (Oldman and D’Onofrio) in their climaxes, opting instead for menacing visual effects (a giant fireball, and a giant space bug). In both cases, it seems to lessen the threat level somewhat. Sure, Earth is about to be destroyed in both cases, but there’s no substitute for the hero going toe-to-toe with a great villain in the finale. (Indeed, in The Fifth Element, the film’s hero and villain never have any contact in any way…)
Round Four: Direction
The Fifth Element was a passion project of writer/director Luc Besson‘s for years. Interestingly, delays in the production (including accommodating lead actor Bruce Willis‘ schedule), led to Besson writing and directing another film entirely in the interim. (That movie, The Professional, which was written in only a month and shot in three, is widely considered to be a better film. It sits high on the IMDb Top 250, and is ranked higher on Flickchart.) And following The Fifth Element, Besson is now primarily known for his involvement in more generic action films, such as Taken, From Paris With Love, the three Transporter films and the French Taxi series.
His sci-fi opus remains a distinctly original visual marvel, though. At the time, it was the most expensive film produced outside of Hollywood, and the money is there on screen, with wildly imaginative creature, set and costume designs, and brilliant visual effects by Digital Domain. The film features plenty of sci-fi and action clichés, but Besson directs his action sequences with flair, and keeps things moving at a brisk pace. His astonishingly bold color palate really adds to the film’s sense of character, too. Ultimately, The Fifth Element is nothing if not fun.
Men in Black, meanwhile, fell under the direction of Barry Sonnenfeld, previously best known for the crime comedy Get Shorty and two Addams Family movies. His experience with The Addams Family certainly must have helped with MIB’s quirky sensibilities. He handles both the action and the comedy with a sure hand, and provides many interesting visual touches. (MIB was also a close collaboration with executive producer Steven Spielberg; one has to wonder how much influence the creator of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had on this production.)
Sonnenfeld does his career-best work with Men in Black, but for Luc Besson, The Fifth Element was an obvious labor of love. This round is close, but The Fifth Element just edges out Men in Black, 10-9.
And the Winner Is…
Many directors have their own personal Star Wars: an attempt to create an entire, incredibly detailed sci-fi world. Both The Fifth Element and Men in Black succeed on that front. They are both chock-full of eye candy. But where Men in Black pulls ahead is in the truly unique nature of its story, and the charisma of its two lead performers. (Just don’t hold its own sequel against it.)
The winner of this bout, by UNANIMOUS DECISION: Men in Black.
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