When he’s at the top of his game, Luc Besson explores what makes a man human with a grace that belies his artistic abilities with the camera. It’s frightfully easy to stop at the glossy surface of his movies and say what you see is what you get. But that ignores what sits — waiting patiently for viewers to catch on when the frenetic pace slows for a moment or two — at the bullet-laden bottom of his best work. Besson knows how to keep his audience entertained, at least when he’s not making turgid martyr biopics with Milla Jovovich, but he also knows that it’s often the human relationships and not the semiautomatic weapons that make a movie something more than a passing fancy. La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional are stories of lonely, steel-skinned men and women finding within themselves a long-forgotten ability to breathe. For all his facility with ordnance, it’s his deft touch with character that sets Besson apart.
The character of note in Wasabi, which Besson wrote but didn’t direct (although Besson’s fingerprints are all over the movie, he left directing duties to Gerard Krawczyk), is Hubert Fiorentini (Besson stalwart Jean Reno). Reno plays a French detective whose knee-jerk reliance on his fists to solve crimes lands him on an involuntary sabbatical. Two decades earlier, Hubert worked for French military intelligence and was stationed in Japan, where he fell in love with fellow intelligence officer, Miko Yoshimido. This was an emotion he had presumably never experienced (and presumably never did again). She left him, he never found out why, and he spent the rest of his days drowning himself in work and pining for his lost love.
Just as Hubert is wondering what he’ll do with himself on his vacation, he gets a call from Tokyo: Miko has died and named him executor of her will. He flies to Japan, where he immediately gets into a scrape with a customs officer and is held in custody until his old French intelligence buddy, Momo (Michel Muller), retrieves him. As the reluctant hero, the type of role in which Reno has always excelled under the tutelage of Besson, Hubert sheds not a single drop of blood during the film. His methods may sometimes be questionable, but there’s never any doubt that he’s in total control of any given situation.
Until he meets Yumi (Ryoko Hirosue), a prototypical Tokyo teen whom he discovers is his daughter with Miko. Hubert is charged with her care for the two days between the reading of Miko’s will and Yumi’s 20th birthday, when she will become of legal age. But Yumi is so full of hate toward her unknown bastard father that Hubert refuses to reveal his true identity. And his utter befuddlement at the foreign species that is children — not just any child, but a Japanese kid with her pop anime-wardrobe and video-game sensibilities — results in plenty of amusing fish-out-of-water moments. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the look on Reno’s face when Yumi tells Hubert she wants to wallpaper her bedroom with a picture of a mushroom cloud. Then, there’s his attempt to play “Dance Dance Revolution,” an arcade phenomenon that, if it hasn’t yet reached Detroit, should soon.
The rest of the funny comes from Momo, who is a perfect specimen of the slapstick, inept sidekick. And it doesn’t hurt that Muller is so unfortunate-looking that you can’t help but laugh when he opens his mouth. The humor serves to lighten the tone of a film that at its core is about a strongman trying so hard to prove he can handle anything that he forgets that there’s more to life than collaring bad guys. Reno’s sad eyes, resolute mouth and droll delivery — he’s so good at playing off the energy of his fellow actors without showing effort that it’s scary — create a character whose transformation from all-work-and-no-play to a happy balance of the two is a joy to watch.
It’s not that there’s ever any doubt as to how the story will end (although how it began, in that Miko ripped off $200 million from the mob, is another thing entirely), but that Besson’s script rises above any predictability with its attention to heart and humor.
Krawczyk’s direction is good although not inspired, safely drawing on both Besson and Tom Tykwer. And this is indisputably a Besson movie: his themes, his actors, his unwavering reliance on Reno’s affecting skill at playing opposite actresses 30 years his junior. Reach out, Besson tells us, and you’ll be paid back twice over. But Wasabi isn’t Leon: Redux. It has a delicious flavor all its own.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph; call 248-542-0180).
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.