Here’s a tale of two action auteurs. In 1981, Luc Besson made his debut short “L’avant dernier” and James Cameron got his first feature directorial credit “Piranha Part Two: The Spawning.” From these inauspicious beginnings both men would go on to reinvent the action wheel for France and the US, respectively, meeting with entirely different responses along the way.
Cameron was hailed as the savior and re-inventor of the genre, getting a rare amount of critical respect in the process. Meanwhile, Besson — who went on to splashy and progressively more expensive fare like “Subway” and “La Femme Nikita” — was basically deemed Satan’s agent for trying to destroy a (very reductive) version of French film culture, one explosion at a time.
Their two trajectories intersect again Friday, when “Avatar” changes the world as we know it (or at least ties up every IMAX screen in the country for the next month) and when Besson’s “Arthur and the Vengeance of Maltazard” was, well, at least supposed to open as well — though given the cash-strapped travails of the Weinstein Company, who knows.
If you think these two movies aren’t on the same scale, consider that, with the powers of Besson and Cameron combined, France is going to have its biggest box office year ever — a measurement more meaningful than the American equivalent, since it’s based on ticket sales rather than increasing prices.
“Arthur and the Unpronounceable Title,” for those of you who haven’t been keeping track, is the second of a trilogy of children’s fantasy films seemingly too spazzy to gain much traction in the U.S. Reviews of the first installment — released, with little fanfare, in a version dubbed with the mish-mash likes of Snoop Dogg and Madonna — were unfavorable, but the “Arthur” series does well in Europe.
As does Besson: during his six-year directorial hiatus (between the roundly panned twin disasters of “The Messenger” and the unwatchable “Angel-A”), he founded an unimpeachable commercial dynasty as producer: the “Taxi” franchise that lasted four entries, three “Transporter”s, and numerous other profitable films that didn’t need America one bit to make money.
If it seems like Besson’s gone the route of easy hackdom while Cameron’s remained an uncompromising visionary (at least in his own mind), think again. Cameron needed years and years of technology to realize his visions, but Besson made “The Fifth Element” in 1997, thereby realizing his teen dreams of the ’70s. Having done that, there really wasn’t any need for him to stick around any longer. It’s actually kind of honest of him to have retreated as he did. He really didn’t have any illusions about who and what he was.
Cameron, on the other hand… well, I love him, but he’s not going anywhere, and he’s not as genial about just owning up to being an action genius and kind of an idiot screenwriter. We can only hope that “Avatar” will be at least as amusing as the goofy “Fifth Element,” possibly the least ponderous end-of-the-universe action movie ever made. That was a visionary sci-fi movie for the light-hearted Clinton years. In the aughts, it seems, everything comes harder.
[Photos: “Piranha Part Two: The Spawning,” Sony, 1983; “Arthur and the Vengeance of Maltazard,” Weinstein Company, 2009]