If Luc Besson wants to take a breather, I can’t blame him. After twenty years of crafting blockbuster stories on land (“Leon”), sea (“The Big Blue”), and air (“The Fifth Element”), I can only imagine a nice little Parisian tale of love and woe was just what he needed to recharge the creative batteries.
Andre (Jamel Debbouze, “Days of Glory”) is a petty criminal in debt to everyone he knows. With only 24 hours to come up with a serious haul of cash before his troubles worsen, Andre decides he’s better off dead and heads to a bridge to commit suicide. Unexpectedly, a statuesque woman named Angela (Rie Rasmussen, “Femme Fatale”) is already there and jumps first. When Andre follows to save her life, she pledges total companionship to the diminutive crook and sets out to clears his debts. As she makes good on all of her promises he starts to believe that he’s found an angel sent from above to help him, and it turns out that might not be too far from the truth.
Perhaps “Angel-A” is Besson testing himself to see if he still has a passion for humanity. Put the director in the center of an action blockbuster and there are few better, more visionary directors out there today. But Besson hasn’t explored the flavors of a calm odd coupling since “Leon” back in 1994, so there’s already a built-in refresher of comfort with “Angel-A” that settles the mind immediately.
The picture is a spongy little drama/comedy that coasts by on a massive reserve tank of charm. Really a battle of fears between Angela and Andre, “Angel-A” is an episodic tale of a man’s self-actualization and unstoppable devotion. I enjoyed where Besson’s heart was at for this feature; it’s a fantasy script nestled on some very real world ideas of acceptance and personal inventory, but also bonkers enough to discuss Angela’s literal wings and magically floating ash trays. Besson’s trick is that this all seems so unassuming at first, but as the layers are removed, the viewer finds themselves embracing these characters – raging debtors and potential heavenly agents they might be.
The performances from Debbouze and Rasmussen are the ties that bind “Angel-A” together. Sprinting to keep up with Besson’s cart-wheeling screenplay, the actors are two striking physical specimens and the camera loves their differences. Andre is a dumpy, physically disabled troublemaker; a loser in life who’s starting to believe his own press. Angela is a towering blonde firecracker with a sexuality that melts glass. The duo makes for one hilariously uneven couple, but their acting couldn’t be more finely matched and ready to engage.
Besson also has the mesmerizing cinematography of Thierry Arbogast to rely on. A longtime collaborator, Arbogast and Besson have elected to shoot “Angel-A” in black and white, both to soften the alarm of any magic spilled onscreen and to let the fine Parisian locations breathe. Stripped of color, “Angel-A” couldn’t look better if it tried; the creamy vistas lend the tale a certain distance to better absorb and create a new glimpse of Paris that energizes a very stale locale.
Besson’s sense of mystery is a hard one to smother for long and soon “Angel-A” asks the audience to make some very big leaps of faith. Angela’s potential otherworldly nature is a scripted element that will leave some viewers cold, no doubt, yet those with stronger fantastical faculties will love how Besson follows through on his promises, cautious not to break the lopsided reality of the world he’s creating.
“Angel-A” is a dear, surprising film – one of the best Besson has put out into the world. It’s a strange feature with moods that aren’t always immediately clear, but reward the patient with a little oddity and magic blended together for maximum delight.Rating: A-