Review: “Colombiana”

“Colombiana” wastes no time in getting to a thrilling sequence involving a nine-year-old girl being chased through the streets of Bogotá by gangsters moments after she witnessed the murder of her parents. Unfortunately, this early sequence is the film’s strongest and most engaging element as “Colombiana” never successfully builds off the emotions established in its strong opening.

The girl’s name is Cataleya, who’s named after a Colombian orchid and is determined to exact revenge on the man responsible for her parents’ murder. Zoe Saldana plays Cataleya as an adult, who works as a contract killer for her Chicago-based uncle (Cliff Curtis). Unbeknownst to her uncle, Cataleya is also leaving lipstick drawings of her namesake on numerous victims who are directly associated with her target.

Saldana pulls off a solid performance as a cold and extremely efficient killer with occasional glimpses of emotion. The film is built around its elaborate action sequences almost exclusively and Saldana makes being a skilled assassin look easy (a little too easy at times). The film is at its weakest in between the numerous action sequences, as there is not much of a plot to speak of.

The supporting cast consists of a determined FBI agent (Lennie James) who knows little about the killer he’s hunting and a boyfriend (Michael Vartan) who knows even less about the woman he’s sleeping with. The ultimate object of Cataleya’s vengeance is crime lord Don Luis (Beto Benites) who, along with his henchman Marco (Jordi Mollà), follows the most generic and pedestrian of templates for villains in cinema.

One doesn’t expect rich characters and deep plots in a B-grade action film, but the key element of any successful revenge thriller is the audience’s ability to empathize with the main character. That is essentially where “Colombiana” fails and leaves the audience with lingering questions starting with: Where did this super-killing woman get her training? There seems to be a significant hole in “Colombiana” relating to the 15-year gap in Cataleya’s backstory that would have given the character and the film more weight.

Young Cataleya is played exceptionally well by Amandla Stenberg. In the limited time Stenberg is on screen, she manages to exude a great amount of depth and emotion to the character, which is sadly not expanded upon in the character’s adult life. Stenberg exudes so much sympathy that it comes as a bit of a disappointment when the screen ceases to tell to her story by fading to black in order to resume the story 15 years later.

Luc Besson wrote the screenplay along with Robert Mark Kamen. Both men have previously teamed up to write such films as “The Fifth Element” (1997) and “The Transporter” (2002). Besson also served as producer of the film and is surely no stranger to having strong, female action stars in his films. With both “La Femme Nikita” (1990) and “Leon: The Professional” (1994) on his resume, it’s disappointing that “Colombiana” did not benefit from his past cinematic achievements.

Director Olivier Megaton is quite adept at handling many of the film’s elaborate action scenes, including a terrific scene involving a prison break-in. One notable exception is a bathroom fight sequence that occurs late in the film. The scene is near seizure-inducing as it’s riddled with quick cuts, blurry shots and shaky cameras.

“Colombiana” is a film that never lives up to its promising opening as young Amandla Stenberg nearly outshines Saldana’s own performance as a younger and more sympathetic version of the same character. There are as many plot holes as there are bullet holes in “Colombiana”, all of which can be overlooked in this genre film that focuses squarely on action. The main problems come down to underdeveloped characters and lack of consistent plot elements to assist the main agenda of revenge.