Colombiana Delivers the Goods, but The Debt Doesn’t Quite Pay Off

Vengeance is Beautiful, says the ad for Colombiana,  and this isn’t false advertising, especially as embodied by Zoe Saldana as a lovely assassin who wants to kill the men who murdered her parents in Colombia. As the movie opens, we see a criminal tell his crime lord that he wants to leave the business, after dropping off the “only” copy of an incriminating disk—you know, the kind of disk that can blow the top off the Colombian underworld.  Clearly, this criminal is unaware that you can’t just resign from a high-paying position in the underworld the way you would resign from a corporate job on Wall Street (although some might say the positions are similar).  Anyway, even this criminal/family man realizes his boss is mighty angry (as evidenced by the hordes of machine-gun wielding hoodlums who storm his home and kill everyone (most of the carnage takes place off-camera—but that’s the last time it does)—everyone that is, except the young Cataleya (an intelligent, driven Amandla Stenberg) who escapes  (with a flash-drive)  from the killers in an exciting chase sequence and makes her way to Chicago to live with her criminal uncle.  Naturally the uncle is aghast when his niece wants to learn the trade of killing people (although the first time we see him, he’s beating up a chair-bound individual—la familia!).  In any case, the young Catelaya  morphs into the dangerous assassin Colombiana (Saldana) who kills only bad people in order to flush out her parents’ killers.  If I seem to make light of the plot machinations, the movie does no such thing.  Everything is played straight—occasionally leaning to the overheated—and it’s all thoroughly entertaining.  The scene where we first see the adult Colombiana show her wares  in a jail is fast-paced and tightly edited, likewise her infiltration of a major criminal’s compound (complete with a pool of sharks).  The only miscues are the “domestic” scenes with Colombiana’s boyfriend, a sincere, but clueless artist (a bland Michael Vartan)—these try to show Colombiana’s humanity but only drag the movie down.  Other than that, Saldana is a powerhouse, and this latest empowered female action flick from Luc Besson (the directing credit belongs to Oliver Megaton, but this is Besson’s baby) is more than worth the trip to your local cinema.

I wish I could say the same for John Madden’s The Debt, even though it boasts a powerhouse cast led by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and the suddenly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain.  In a nutshell, retired Mossad agent Rachel  (Mirren) is forced to confront her past when her daughter writes a book glorifying her exploits—namely the capture and execution of an escaped Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen).  As we see in a series of flashbacks, all does not go well for Rachel and her team, the earnest, dedicated David (Sam Worthington) and the  self-assured Stefan (Marton Csokas)—and now an older Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) urges the older Rachel has to “fix” things.  There are a number of things that work here: the opening scenes that interweave the protagonists in the 1990’s and their younger versions in the 1960’s have a hint of menace and foreboding; Vogel’s scenes where he quietly taunts his captors; the older Rachel searching for a name and address, trapped in an office with some amorous workers, while reliving a fateful moment with David.  However, this would-be intelligent thriller moves a little too slowly—it spends too much time on the romantic complications introduced in the mission—and) the older Rachel’s mission only makes sense if you—oh heck, it doesn’t make sense.   Rachel’s actions, anyway you slice them, would only focus attention on the errors of the past—not erase them, as is everyone’s goal.  Without revealing everything, the final confrontation reminded me of the climactic square-off between Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck in The Boys From Brazil.