When Leeloo falls from the sky and lands in Korben Dallas’ taxi, the only word she and the cabbie both know is Bada-boom. Bada-boom also describes what *The Fifth Element* aspires to, but there is surprisingly little of the bada-boom element in this sci-fi heavy, action-lite French film by writer-director Luc Besson (*La Femme Nikita*). What there is in abundance in *The Fifth Element* is comic book style over substance, broad humor stretched thin, and a trifling plot that amounts to a bunch of claptrap about divine beings saving the world with a little help from their friends.
The story begins, as such stories always do, in Egypt in 1914. An archeologist discovers heiroglyphs that prophecy the coming of a great and terrible something or other that destroys the earth every 5,000 years. Suddenly, a spaceship appears, and a bunch of big metal turtle guys with little insect heads debark, open a secret chamber and make off with four stones and a statue, promising to return with them in 300 years, when they will be needed to defend the world from the terrible something. The four stones represent the four elements we know and love: earth, wind, water and fire; the statue is the fifth element, the divine element.
Fast forward 300 years. Right on schedule, the terrible something, looking for all the world like a giant charcoal briquet, zooms through space on a collision course with Earth. The turtle guys, true to their word, are on their way back with the stones when they are inconveniently shot down by warriors in the employ of Jean-Baptiste Zorg (Gary Oldman, with big teeth, the better for chomping on scenery), an evil gazillionaire businessman who intends to acquire the stones for the space briquet (to build a barbecue?). It looks like Earth is doomed, but wait! Using a salvaged disembodied hand from the statue, scientists genetically engineer a perfect being (Milla Jovovich, a fashion model of course), who just happens to be The Supreme Being, divinity incarnate, albeit divinity scantily clad in a costume that consists of a few skimpy white bandage-like straps (straps are apparently all the rage in 2214). She calls herself Leeloo, and she somehow hid the coveted stones while she was a disembodied hand (it doesn’t pay to ask too many questions about this plot). The upshot of all this is that Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), soon-to-be-unemployed cabbie and ex-Special Forces guy extraordinaire, will have to retrieve the stones and save the world before the briquet arrives. Since the briquet doesn’t actually do anything but beetle through space, it is left to Zorg and his evil minions, a bunch of rock-stupid alien guys with big lumpy heads and droopy donkey ears, to stop Korben and Leeloo.
So much for the substance.
*The Fifth Element* isn’t really about saving the world. It’s about style, style, style! This movie is an gigantic catwalk for the fabulous futuristic fashions of costume designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, strapmaster of the universe. I myself was absolutely mesmerized, to the point of distraction, by Korben’s form-fitting orange tank top (with strappy back!). I couldn’t take my eyes off it: what was that marvelous fabric? It looked like plastic, it looked like silk, and the subtle striping! Now, that, is divinity incarnate. Leeloo was clad in a variety of revealing, form-fitting outfits, though none as memorable as the bandage bondage number. Zorg, being evil, was prone to wearing the big Elvis collars that would-be world dominators favor, as well as long jackets made of shimmering mood-ring fabrics. Korben’s ersatz sidekick, DJ Ruby Rhod, a temperamental combination of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, RuPaul and Stepnfetchit, wore suitably flashy, glam numbers with deep decolletage. Even lowly muggers in *The Fifth Element* wear kicky little hats and strappy tops.
As one might expect in such an environment, nothing much gets done, likely for fear of soiling the garments. Korben doesn’t do anything at all, really, until the last half hour of the film, when he is more suitably decked out in a disposable tux that is quickly stripped away to reveal the standard action-hero-suspenders-and-white-tank-top uniform, as seen in *Die Hard* un, deux, trois. You just can’t save the world in a Gaultier, darling -- imagine the cleaning bills!
Cartoony-colorful sets are built around all the sartorial splendor. *The Fifth Element* really piles on the style -- it’s a great looking movie, full of visually interesting architecture (ranging from late 20th century Boeing 747 to futuristic *Blade Runner* cum *Jetsons* sky cities to cold, dark corporate monolith styles), and nifty visual effects (briquets notwithstanding) like flying car chases, mega skyscrapers, and orbiting luxury hotels.
Take away the visual accoutrements, however, and *The Fifth Element* is pretty much naked, without so much as a figleaf to cover its gaping plot holes and caricaturish characters. Willis can rise to the level of good material, but here he plays a pretty standard, world-weary guy on a mission who doesn’t talk much. He’s plenty likable in the role anyway, and as mentioned before, he wears a really nifty shirt. I liked his bleach-blonde hair, too. Jovovich’s Leeloo is just another alien waif who absorbs knowledge like a sponge, but she handles the emotional ups and downs of the role well, and is a convincing action goddess in her own right. The most annoying character is the nattering DJ Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker), a collection of shrill stereotypes that are not particularly funny, although clearly, he is meant to be comical. His is a throwaway bit part that inexplicably turns into a major character in the film. Perhaps the French pedigree of *The Fifth Element* accounts for the many comic misfires -- that Jerry Lewis thing. The film’s minor characters are also played broadly (and none so broadly as Oldman’s Zorg), in keeping with the overall cartoonishness of *The Fifth Element*. For the most part, these folks stare in dumb wonder at various things such as flying space briquets and naked supreme beings.
To say that style triumphs over substance is to damn with faint praise in the case of *The Fifth Element*, because there really is no substance. This movie is nothing, literally, if not visually exciting and compelling. But on that level, and that level alone, it’s actually quite enjoyable.