When Luc Besson was 10, he became transfixed by a comic-book series that changed his world.
He recalls, “One day, I found a magazine called Pilote. Inside, I discovered Valerian and Laureline. I fell in love with Laureline and wanted to be Valerian.”
When Besson became a filmmaker his mind kept backtracking to his childhood hero.
Even after the success of Fifth Element (1997), Besson knew he was still constrained by the relatively primitive 1990s visual effects technology available and it would be some time before he could tackle the wondrous Valerian and Laureline universe and recreate all those worlds and aliens. After James Cameron invited Besson to the set of Avatar, he knew it was time saying,
“When Avatar arrived, everything seemed possible. I thought one day I’ll return to sci-fi with these new tools. The only limit is your imagination. That’s when I decided to make Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.“
Set in 2740, the pseudo-lovers and special ops partnership of Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are assigned to investigate the mysterious dark force that’s threatening the peaceful existence of the universe’s important intergalactic hub, the City of a Thousand Planets (aka Alpha Space Station). It’s a race to find out who the marauding menace is and why the City is on the eve of destruction.
Yet after Fifth Element (FE), something happened that changed Besson’s eye for action.
April 19, 1997, it was my wife and I’s 16th wedding anniversary and to celebrate, we attended a film screening at Hollywood‘s famous Cinerama Dome. Entering the lobby of this unique domed-shaped theater, I immediately recognized the man with striking short, blonde-streaked hair walking toward us. It was Besson and the film we were about to watch was Fifth Element. We shook hands, I introduced Silvia, he gave her a French double cheek kiss and congratulated us on our anniversary.
His final departing words were, “I tell you, one day, I will make a kung fu film.” Why’d he say that?
Several months earlier I was one of five reporters invited to his rented Malibu Beach house, where he was editing FE. He gave us a 30-minute film presentation, a 20-minute Q&A and showed a 16-minute clip of FE. It blew us away. Though some writers left, two of us remained for a 10-minute one-on-one interview. I was dying to discuss some action sequences from The Professional (1994), which would have been unprofessional to ask Besson amid the group Q&A time.
During our private talk, I pointed out that several of the action gags from Professional mirrored the action from the Hong Kong martial arts (MA) film Dragon from Russia (DfR; 1990), which starred Yuen Tak, who was also the action director. Yuen Tak was one of Hong Kong’s Seven Little Fortunes, a 1960s opera performance group that included Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Besson said that he’d never seen DfR but was intrigued. When he shared FE had one MA fight, I was more anxious to see the movie.
He asked me to send DfR and anything else I thought he might like. My tape included Saviour of the Soul (1991), Fong Sai Yuk (1993) and New Legend of Shaolin (1994). Weeks later Besson ecstatically told me he loved them and would one day do something similar. Two films are Jet Li movies and Corey Yuen and/or Yuen Tak directed all four action. When Besson repeated his words at the FE screening, I took him seriously. Four years later, Besson released the Jet Li starring Kiss of the Dragon (2001), with Corey and Tak being the action director and fight choreographer, respectively.
FE‘s lone Martial Arts duel pits Leeloo (Milla Jojovich) against a group of Mangalores (hit-ogres; stuntmen in rubber suits). Using simple static camera angles, Milla does a bunch of blocks, punches and kicks (not her, but a stunt foot), and does a series of back flips that looks like part of a female gymnast’s floor routine. She poorly mimics David Carradine‘s kung fu postures and Bruce Lee‘s come an get me hand gesture. Yet since the fight is short and intercut with the blue diva Plavalaguna’s opera aria scene, it works.
Between Fifth Element and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Besson’s company has been involved in 23 film/TV projects that feature MA stars or at least one MA influenced fight. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets also has one MA influenced fight, yet it’s more complex than FE as it involves visual special effects and advance motion capture technology.
In the 1970s, when most Chinese female kung fu stars didn’t practice Martial Arts, some fight choreographers used a technique during group fights that demanded precise timing from the stuntmen. An actor would learn a fight sequence using exaggerated moves (sword slashes, spins) without worrying about looking where she was striking. She’d practice by herself, then do the same moves against the stuntmen as if they weren’t there. Each stuntman’s job was to get close enough to the actor to sell her strikes.
In fight scenes where heroes battle special effects creatures, a similar method has been employed. The actors (or stunt doubles) deliver strikes with exaggerated movements. Their opponents on camera, are stuntmen dressed in motion capture gear with padding for protection, so they can get close to the flailing heroes and sell the strikes without actors knowing how to fight. Yet if the actor can throw crisp techniques, the fights look better.
During editing, the Gourmands are bigger than the stuntmen and plus with tweaking the motion capture images. There’s more room for error during shooting, which makes the fight safer to film (bar the wirework).
Featuring David Bowie’s song Space Oddity at the film’s beginning was classy. Though critics say there’s too much in the film, that’s just Besson being true to himself. Both Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Fifth Element earned $17 million on their opening weekends. History repeating itself?