When Luc Besson's The Messenger failed to set the box office on fire in 1999 and he unofficially retired from directing, his fans were left wondering if he'd ever get back behind the camera or resign himself to a career focused on producing action films like The Transporter and Unleashed. Thankfully, Besson answered that question for us in 2005 when he finished work on Angel-A, a strange but undeniably charming black and white take on It's A Wonderful Life!
The film follows Andre (Jamel Debbouze), a small time criminal who has built up some fairly substantial gambling debts that he now has to pay off. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the money and when we're introduced to him, he's being roughed up by a bunch of thugs hired to collect. From there, a crime boss threatens his life and we learn that another group of hoods are out to get him. Things aren't looking too good for Andre. He tries to get help from the American Embassy as he is an American citizen despite the fact that he was born in Algeria, but they won't help him as he's in trouble with the French police. The cops pick him up and throw him back into the streets of Paris to fend for himself.
At this point, Andre has enough. He decides, one Sunday morning, to end it all and just as he's about to jump from a bridge into the river below, a mysterious and beautiful blonde (Rie Rasmussen) beats him to the punch. Shocked, Andre jumps down to rescue her, at which point she tells him she'll do anything he wants as he has saved her life. His first request is a kiss, and she willingly obliges. From there, the pair wander around Paris and eventually she turns a few tricks in a swanky nightclub to earn the money Andre needs to pay off his debts and put his troubles behind him. The more time they spend together, the more this woman, Angela, begins to have an interesting effect on Andre and Andre begins to realize that there is much more to this strange woman than her long legs and good looks.
With cinematography from Thierry Arbogast (who is no stranger to Besson fans, having shot both Leon and The Fifth Element), Angel-A is a gorgeous looking black and white film in which the scenery of Paris becomes as much a character in the film as Andre or Angela. Using some clever and symbolic camerawork (notice how many times the camera is looking up to the sky), the camera work tells just as much of the story as the dialogue and plot. The end result are some absolutely stunning visuals that really pull us into the film.
The central performances from Dobbouze and Rie Rasmussen are key to the film's success. They play off of one another very effectively and the contrast we see as they stand near each other works as an interesting symbol of their differences - he a short, scruffy, dirty looking little man and she a tall, blonde statuesque woman. Both performers play their parts with enough enthusiasm that their situation warrants an emotional investment on the part of the audience but neither player goes too over the top.
Don't expect much in the way of the kind of action or intrigue that much of Besson's output is known for as there are no explosions, chase scenes, shoot outs or fights in this film. Compared to many of the director's other film, Angel-A is almost quiet. That said, it works incredibly well even if the premise is a little on the sugary side. The dialogue is clever in that it drops hints and reveals bits and pieces of the characters' backgrounds without beating us over the head with the obvious. The ending might seem a little heavy handed or even corny to some but taken in the context of the story that the film tells, it's completely appropriate and aspects of it are open ended enough that viewers can draw some of their own conclusions as to who or what Angela really is (the not-so-subtle title of the film being an obvious clue). That said, anyone who has found the right person or experienced in their own lives what it's like when what seems to be a coincidence turns out to be so much more should be able to appreciate what Besson's picture shows us both literally and metaphorically. The end result is a completely charming and unusually romantic picture that is as quirky as it is beautiful to look at but which is ultimately a unique and rewarding film.
Sony presents Angel-A in a very sharp 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that really leaves very little to complain about. Contrast looks good and the picture stays nice and clean from start to finish. A few shots look a little soft but this could be on purpose as it feels intentional. Black levels are nice and solid and there are plenty of different shades of black, white and grey used throughout the film to make for a very impressive picture. There are no problems with mpeg compression to report and even if a tiny bit of aliasing pops up in a couple of scenes, overall this transfer looks fantastic.
Angel-A has only one audio option and that's the original French language track presented on DVD in a nice Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix with optional yellow subtitles in both Spanish and English. Dialogue is clean and clear from start to finish and the subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors. The rear channels aren't used as frequently as they could have been but they do kick in a few times and add some ambience. The bass response is very strong and quite prominent in the mix, at times it comes close to overpowering things, but otherwise this is a strong audio track that does a nice job of bringing the film to life.
The only real supplement on this disc is a Making Of Angel-A featurette that clocks in at just a hair under twenty-seven minutes in length. This is primarily made up of behind the scenes and on set footage and we get to hear from Rie Rasmussen and Jamel Debbouze about working with Besson and about their respective roles in the film. There are some thoughts from the stunt doubles used in the picture and while it would have been nice to hear from Besson himself (which, let's face it, rarely happens) this is a decent if somewhat superficial look at how the picture was put together.
Rounding out the extras are previews for other Sony DVDs, animated menus and chapter stops. The trailer for the feature itself is mysteriously absent.
A hyper-stylish and quirky blend of drama, romance and humor, Angel-A is a stunningly beautiful film to look at with a genuinely sweet story underneath to keep us interested. Sony's DVD could have certainly done better in the extra features department but it looks great and it sounds quite good. Besson fans have wanted to see him get behind the camera for some time, and thankfully his odd (and so far extremely underappreciated) comeback film delivers. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.