Luc Besson has produced, written, and directed some of the most entertaining and pulse pounding films of the last two-plus decades, among them Leon: The Professional; Taken and its sequel; The Fifth Element; and The Transporter series. However, even with a track record like that it’s possible to misfire, and unfortunately, The Family misses the target.
The story focuses on Brooklyn mobster Fred Blake/Givoanni Manzoni (Robert DeNiro) who, after surviving a near hit, turns in evidence that puts high-ranking mobster Don Luchese (Stan Carp) in prison and force Manzoni, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and children Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo), into witness protection in Normandy, France with new identities. Each member of the re-christened “Blake” family is amoral in their own right and, as a result, this isn’t the first time that the family has been relocated, much to the consternation of FBI agent and handler Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).
It sounds like a typical “culture shock” story, but one would expect (given that the story is written by Besson with an assist by screenwriter Michael Caleo with the entire process overseen by producer Martin Scorsese, who knows a thing or two about mobsters ) that the premise would be given an interesting overhaul. However, the whole film is disjointed. It’s not that it is not enjoyable. It just seems uninspired.
Besson has been able to deftly juggle humor, dark or otherwise, with action and suspense before, as any of the aforementioned films can attest to. However, here the tonal shifts are discordantly jarring. The comedy, while effective in parts, is derived primarily from the actors and the audience's familiarity with them and, more importantly, their quirks. Robert DeNiro is essentially playing Robert DeNiro. Ms. Pfieffer basically repurposes her Married to the Mob character though she does manage to give her character a bit more bite that would give The Sopranos’ Carmela Soprano pause. Tommy Lee Jones seems to be on autopilot these days, playing Stansfield as a subdued Samuel Gerard from The Fugitive/U.S. Marshalls. It’s not to say they’re not enjoyable to watch, but there’s almost an underlying bored aspect to their performances combined with a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” at the audience that you’ve seen this all before (especially given the reference to another Scorsese film reference that is practically televised to the audience before it is even mentioned***). Surprisingly, it’s Agron and D’Leo who are the film’s standouts. Both start out as the stock “too cool for school” teenager characters but grow in an extremely visceral way as the story progress so that by its conclusion, they are at a more mature place. The world, and the circumstances by which they come to live in it, are no joke. The other performers are so one note rote that they barely merit a mention. That they service the story well is the best that can be said.
Besson seems more interested in, and devotes two-thirds of the film’s running time, to the Manzoni/Blake’s “fish out of water” story. Thus, the subplot regarding the price on their collective heads and the hit man in pursuit of them (an effectively creepy Jon Freda) is almost tacked on at the end. However, Besson’s direction ratchets the suspense in the limited amount of time remaining to actual edge-of-seat proportions. The climax also allows the two younger actors to shine in their respective roles, running a gamut of conflicting emotions warring with a surprising amount of self-possession. The score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine is quirky but colorful, adding to the film’s general atmosphere. However, given the unevenness of film’s tone, it comes across as disjointed as well.
By no means is The Family a bad film. It has some enjoyable moments and some good character interaction. However, the shifting tone, the ennui of the leads, and the overall execution prevent it from being as enjoyable as one would expect given the talent involved both in front of and behind the camera. I never thought I’d see a Luc Besson film that would merit a “wait for cable” designation.
I guess there’s a first time for everything.
***The script is based on a short story called Malavita, which was also called Badfellas