Luc Besson was at the top of his game from the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties, writing and directing a number of solid actioners that made him France's answer to John Woo. Whether you talk about the fantastic underworld intrigue of "Subway", the over-the-top ballistics of "La Femme Nikita (Nikita)", the visceral and emotional sparks that flew in "The Professional (Léon)", or the nonsensical sci-fi spectacle of "The Fifth Element", Besson spent most of these years redefining the paradigm of French cinema.
However, in recent years, particularly following the failure of his 1999 historical epic "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc", Besson has spent most of his time as a prolific producer and writer, being involved in up to seven films per year. Included in his rapidly growing list of credits are the hit European action franchise "Taxi", the Jet Li martial arts actioner "Kiss of the Dragon", and the upcoming fall release "The Transporter", starring Jason Statham ("Snatch") and Hong Kong actress Shu Qi ("Gorgeous"). Another one of his recent efforts is the 2001 French-Japanese co-production "Wasabi (La petite moutarde qui monte au nez)", which was released on Hong Kong-import VCD and DVD this past week (though the DVD says region 3, it is actually multi-region).
Jean Reno ("Ronin") plays Hubert Fiorentini, an overzealous French cop who usually lets his fists do the talking. While making one of his usually heavy-handed arrests at a Parisian nightclub, he accidentally sends the son of the police chief to the hospital and finds himself suspended from duty for two months. However, before he gets much of a chance to contemplate what to do during the forced vacation, Hubert receives a call from Japan and learns that his long-lost first love Miko (Yuki Sakai), whom he has not seen in nineteen years, has passed away and named him the sole beneficiary of her will.
Without any time to waste, Hubert hops on a plane for Tokyo. There, Hubert meets the daughter he never knew he had, the spirited yet spoiled Yumi (actress/singer Ryoko Hirosue, best known for "Railroad Man"). Hubert is also given the responsibility of being Yumi's legal guardian until she reaches the age of twenty, which is in about two days. Fortunately, Yumi does not know that Hubert is her father-- as far as she knows, her mother was raped and one day, she intends to track down the man responsible and do unspeakable things to him.
The intrigue only deepens when, upon viewing Miko's body, Hubert finds evidence that his former girlfriend was murdered. Furthermore, a visit to the bank reveals that someone has deposited $200 million in Yumi's bank account. Meanwhile, Hubert spots black-suited thugs following their every move, suggesting that Miko's death is somehow tied to the Japanese mafia, or Yakuza. Thankfully, Hubert has more than a few tricks up his sleeve, as well as the services of former partner Momo (Michel Muller), who has access to the plentiful resources (i.e., guns) of French intelligence.
"Wasabi" offers an easy mix of action and comedy. Most of the comedy arises from Hubert's inability to blend in to his environment, such as his penchant for beating up those that disagree with his particular worldview-- one great sequence has Hubert covertly 'taking care of business' with some bad guys in a department store while a completely oblivious Yumi shops, while another has Hubert recalling all the people he punched out while making an arrest. It is also humorous to see such a tough and self-assured "Dirty Harry"-style cop being humbled by his twenty-year old daughter. Another recurring gag is how almost everyone who Hubert meets in Japan, including his daughter and chief bad guy Takanawa (Yoshi Oida), speaks perfect French-- which makes about as much sense as characters in Hollywood movies being able to find English speakers in every corner of the world.
On the action side, "Wasabi" is a little lacking. Though the fight sequences and shootouts exude obvious Hong Kong action influences, these sequences are rather brief and small-scale, and will likely disappoint viewers expecting the adrenaline-pumping skirmishes of Besson's other productions, such as "Kiss of the Dragon" or "The Professional". Nevertheless, director Gérard Krawczyk (who helmed Besson-produced "Taxi 2") manages to package a few memorable sequences, such as some fisticuffs at a driving range that involves the strategic use of golf balls, and the film's finale, which involves a bank, a huge sum of money, and a lot of guns.
Performance-wise, Reno is fun to watch as the hard-boiled detective who occasionally reveals his softer side, and his deadpan approach to unfamiliar situations sparkles with comic brilliance. As Hubert's daughter, Hirosue is not as successful, as her exaggerated emotions and gestures tend to strain the credibility of her character and make her more of a distracting annoyance than anything else. Interestingly enough, some of Yumi's odd mannerisms may actually be manifestations of the actress' own mental instability-- apparently, during the production of the film, Hirosue pulled a 'Mariah Carey', experiencing a nervous breakdown that was coupled with increasingly bizarre public behavior. Finally, Muller is okay as the Hubert's comic-relief sidekick, though his character's tics go a little overboard at times.
Despite the title, "Wasabi" is not as hot and spicy as one would expect. This French-Japanese dish is nowhere near as tasty as Besson's better films, though it does end up being a decent action comedy, light on the former, and okay on the latter. But even if you are not a fan of Besson, "Wasabi" still manages to be a fun little timewaster, helped especially by the cool presence of Jean Reno.
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