Last week, against my better judgement, I went to see Sin City. The movie ended with me feeling so-so about the experience. Rather than give it a full review, I'll simply forward you to the Multiple Blowhards (and guests) who do a fine and entertaining job of articulating the film's strengths and weaknesses. I'll add one kvetch to the list of weaknesses: the flick was too talky. Always with the voiceover narrator, that let-me-Spillane-it-to-you prose, yak yak yak. Which can be Miller's weakness, as well - though I usually credit him with a sense of humour he may or may not have toward his own material.
The film also felt surprisingly static, for such a faithful visual translation of Frank Miller's work (the first time I read Batman: The Dark Knight Returns I dreamt for months about leaping weightlessly from rooftop to rooftop) - as Michael points out, this is probably a crippling case of being too faithful to the material. This got me wondering who the great Comic Book Directors might be. After a little head-scratching, I came up with only one name: Luc Besson.
There are other contenders, certainly: I loved Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2, and I can still summon the thrill I felt watching Tim Burton's Batman on opening night. But for all the visual gim-crackery these directors had at their disposal, there was little of that surreal "am I dreaming?" spatial sense to their movies. Like all of Burton's movies, Batman feels like it's set in a shoebox diorama (not a bad thing), and while Raimi's Peter Parker is an emotionally compelling character, the Spidey stuff has a video-game sensibility that can keep the viewer at arm's length.
Besson, on the other hand, knows how to make space work for him - particularly apartments. The wildest example is the apartment of The Fifth Element's taxi-driver hero, played by Bruce Willis. He lives in a cramped walk-in closet that looks like it has a bad smell, but with a press of a button, a wall gives way and he's suddenly, vulnerably exposed to a vertiginous drop, a metropolitan Grand Canyon swarming with flying vehicles that follow indecipherable traffic laws. The movie is consciously over-the-top and dramatically uneven, but has a cheery sense of dislocation that keeps the viewer watching.
Again, in the opening sequence of Léon The Professional, Besson uses a gangster's luxury suite to communicate an innate sense of threat. It's not an unusual movie set-up: Léon weasels into unexpected places and coolly dispatches each bodyguard until he and the gangster are alone. Ho-hum. But watch as the suite gets darker, and the camera frames get tighter, until this gangster's claustrophobia is stifling.
My favorite Besson film, though, is La Femme Nikita (thanks in large part to Anne Parrillaud's emotionally accessible performance - a delightful surprise, given how unhinged the character is). Again, Besson uses rooms to bring drama to the script. Nikita's "graduation" dinner in a chichi restaurant flips from a glamorous night out to testosterone-charged menace when she opens her gift and discovers it's an enormous, two-fisted pistol (ah, the French and their double entendres!). Besson's sense of space gets tighter as she assassinates her target, moves from dining room to bricked-in bathroom, to kitchen in an increasingly desperate attempt to escape the armed bodyguards.
I could wax on about Nikita's final, disastrous assignment - the stifling horror she feels when the target she presumes dead thrashes in the tub (bathrooms are put to good use in this film: the place you expect safety and privacy transforms suddenly into an abattoir), but it's time for me to sign off. Besson hasn't taken on an American franchise (yet); his style is more akin to Heavy Metal magazine - one-off adventures with broadly-drawn heroes, for readers who are old enough to know better. Besson embraces this genre's cheerful absurdities and cinematically warps the frame to give the thrills some bouyancy. He also has a Frenchman's unerring discernment for female beauty - any one of his actresses can beckon, wallop and drag out my inner adolescent in ways that are entirely foreign to the Miller/Rodriguez pole-dancers.
Sure, it's still junk-food. But it's the all-important difference between a Quarter-Pounder, and a Roy-Al With Cheese.