As a big fan of director Luc Besson, it makes it really hard to watch him fail. The Fifth Element was the first film of his I saw in theaters and I remember walking out thinking it was either one of the best action films my 17-year-old brain had ever seen, or one of the worst movies I’d ever seen period. Needless to say, with the film playing at the dollar theater, I returned back to see it again and I knew this was a director I needed to seek out at the video store. After finding copies of Léon: The Professional and La Femme Nikita, I was hooked.
Unfortunately, we all know how hit or miss Besson can be. In fact, as far as directing goes, he’s never really made as great a film as the first three. Most of his association with good action films are in the writing/producing category—see Taken and the Transporter/Taxi series. This isn’t to say he doesn’t still have some bite left in him. But when it comes to his latest offbeat comedy The Family, there’s definitely more bark than bite. In fact, it isn’t even until the last 30 minutes that the film even resembles a Besson production. Armed with Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as a mob family in hiding, you’d think Besson would have more up his sleeve. Nevertheless, The Family comes home in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD UltraViolet combo pack to fizzle in your living room.
De Niro stars as family patriarch Giovanni Manzoni, arriving with his dysfunctional family in tow to Normandy, under the alias Fred Blake. Wife Maggie (Pfeiffer) loves an episode of arson whenever she can get hold of a lighter; daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) finds herself falling in love with her tutor when she’s not knocking the local teen boys’ teeth out with a tennis racket; and son Warren (John D’Leo) makes his rounds doing recon to find out how to keep their heads above water at their new high school. Meanwhile, back in New York, Don Luchese (Stan Carp) is stuck in Attica, ordering Rocco (Jon Freda) to track down Manzoni. FBI handler Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is on the case to keep the Blake family safe, but eventually, Blake’s cows come to roost in a fight for the family’s life.
There are some funny things sprinkled throughout the overlong 111-minute runtime. Had Besson spent less time following the Blakes in their every day shenanigans and stuck to the mob stuff, he could have had more to chew on. Being based on the novel Malavita (Badfellas) by Tonino Benacquista, Besson is limited with adapting the novel, instead of how much more exciting this could have been had Besson come up with something else using the family motif. The score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine is catchy, but the music is wackier than what’s on screen. It’s like someone grafted an Italian Seinfeld score into a drama. Something a colleague of mine hated in the first RED film, and now I understand his issue.
It should come as no surprise that whenever De Niro and Jones are onscreen, the two play off each other fantastically with De Niro’s smarmy charm and Jones’ deadpan seriousness. A scene in a library where the two watch Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas should have been uproarious, instead it just shows the kind of fun itching under the surface begging to be unleashed. As for the rest of the cast, Pfeiffer is no stranger to this kind of material and fits in nicely, and the two kids perform better than you’d think. D’Leo would make a great teenage mobster in a movie of his own and even Agron is better here than she ever was on Glee. Unfortunately, the film moves at a snail’s pace with Besson lingering on situations instead of trying to pump up the comedy beats, letting the air out of every scene until the inevitable gunfight finally ensues.
Thankfully, Besson obviously knows how to shoot a good-looking film and Fox’s Blu-ray presentation rarely falters. Presented on a 50GB disc in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, The Family certainly looks the part of a new production. Aliasing, banding, noise, and crush are never a burden. Fine detail is impeccable in every shot. Whether it’s wrinkles or facial hair on De Niro’s weathered face, Pfeiffer’s crows feet, or any pleated suit, it all comes through with striking detail. If it weren’t for the ultra orange glow cast issued by cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, I would give the video a perfect score. I know, this is the fault of the original source, but skin tones never look realistic and it becomes a distraction. As for the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, the action, surround effects, and music all sound amazing. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, dialogue sounds way too deep and bass-heavy which becomes as bothersome as the super-tanned day glow. English is the only available language, with subtitles in English and Spanish.
The special features are very scarce with a 10-minute “Making The Family” consisting of interviews and on set footage featuring stars De Niro, Pfeiffer, D’Leo, and Agron. It’s your standard behind the scenes affair, but it is rather amusing to hear D’Leo and Agron talk about him mistaking her for his makeup artist when they first meet. Not sure what kind of rock D’Leo is living under to not know, or at least recognize, Agron. Next up is a nearly two-minute exercise in “The Many Meanings of Fuck,” where we hear the word used over and over from random film clips trying to show how much of a connoisseur De Niro’s poppa Blake is at using it every chance he gets. Finally, the theatrical trailer and sneak peaks round things out for Runner Runner, The Counselor, Graceland Season 1, and The Americans Season 1.
Anyone looking to catch up on Besson’s filmography is better off watching almost any of his previous directing efforts. I suppose you could say The Family is a slow burn to the big finale, but it’s not worth the wait. The film was not a box office success, so home video is where Besson is probably hoping to find a second life for his latest endeavor. Featuring fantastic video and almost stellar audio, I suppose there are far worse films you could be spending your money on. But considering how much talent was involved and how little pay off comes, The Family is a cautionary rental best suited for indiscriminate fans.