Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tuesday Review: Wasabi (2001)

    In which Jean Reno shoots people and plays DDR - not necessarily in that order.

    There’s a legacy of badasses in film history - films all across the world that get by purely on known, badass actors doing badass things. From Toshiro Mifune to Clint Eastwood to Bruce Lee to Arnold Schwarzenegger, countless films have been produced over the years precisely to show off just how cool the lead actor is. With Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita and Leon under his belt, Jean Reno easily slides into that category. With the action/comedy Wasabi (also produced and written by Besson), Reno gets another showcase for his considerable badass-ness. It’s ultimately lighter than a bag of marshmallows, but - just like said bag of sugary, spongy goodness - too much fun to pass up.

    Reno plays tough-as-nails cop Hubert Florentino, who doesn’t do things by the book and of course gets chewed out by his superiors at every available opportunity. He’s not all mean and grim all the time though, as we find out he’s got a soft-candy center for the love of his life, Miko - who left him nineteen years ago while he was working in Japan without so much as an explanation. Out of the blue, he gets a call from Tokyo and finds out that Miko has recently passed away, and she’s left him something in her will: their daughter Yumi, who Hubert has to watch over for the next two days until her twentieth birthday. The only problem is that Miko seems to have been murdered, and a bunch of Yakuza thugs have taken an interest in Yumi.

    Despite that whole spiel above, Reno has never really been just another “tough guy” actor. He’s certainly earned his status as an action hero, but Reno always brings something else to the table - giving his characters deeper layers than what is normally seen (see: the almost childlike assassin he played in Leon). Here with Hubert, his performance is no different - although he blows people away with his giant magnum and sends dudes sprawling twenty feet with a single punch, there’s still a distinct human core to the character. Judging by the synopsis, it would be easy to see how it could be construed as a crotchety old man dealing with an annoying teenager, but fortunately that’s not the case. Wasabi sidesteps all that “old man shows the younger generation what for” crap (Live Free or Die Hard, I’m looking at you), and instead presents an awkward old man trying to make some kind of connection with a daughter he only recently found out about. It never really gets that deep or emotional, but Reno’s performance is effective all the same.

    Equally up to the task are Reno’s comedic sidekicks, Ryoko Hirosue as his daughter Yumi and Michel Muller as his former colleague Momo. Being an action-comedy, this is where things could get hairy, but fortunately both actors' performances are relatively low-key and never overwhelming. Fitting into the manic-pixie dream girl mold, the character of Yumi is dangerously close to being more annoying than endearing, but Hirosue finds a way to make it feel natural. Muller is also in danger of becoming grating… had he been in every scene. But his moments in the movie are nicely balanced, arriving at just the right time when a little levity is needed.

    The comedy in Wasabi falls just shy of slapstick, but never veers into silliness or becomes overwhelming. Director Gerard Krawczyk nicely handles both tones, possibly due to an overall lightheartedness in even the film’s most dramatic scenes. The film never gets bogged down, never moves at anything other than a fast clip - slightly to it’s detriment, as the film is so light it feels like it’s over in the blink of an eye. But despite the film’s airiness, it never loses sight of the characters. One thing about Besson’s productions, no matter how derivative or vapid they are, they remain firmly character-driven.

    It’s not going to rewrite the book on action movies, but Wasabi provides an excellent showcase for its badass star.


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