by Hope Madden
The writer/director/Frenchman’s fondness for violence and organized crime in film is well documented. He’s written and/or directed dozens of films on the topic, including La Femme Nikita, The Professional, and Transporter. Rather than follow a single assassin or bag man, this time around Besson wades through more familiar cinematic waters with a full-fledged mafia picture.
De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, known to his new neighbors in Normandy, France as Fred Blake. He ratted out his wise guy connections back in Brooklyn, and now the Witness Protection Program shuffles his family around France trying to avoid a retaliatory hit. But the “Blakes” don’t make it easy.
Besson’s screenplay is based on a novel by Tonino Benacquista, who’s penned some great, gritty flicks (The Beat that My Heart Skipped, Read My Lips). The Family is a lighter affair, depicting good natured psychopaths who fail to fit in as another set of psychos descend on a sleepy French town.
The film lacks the action choreography Besson’s audience has come to expect. Instead, its charm lies in the director’s joyous fondness for American gangster flicks in general and De Niro’s work in particular. His odes grow evermore obvious, with callbacks to most of the actor’s greats: Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Godfather: Part II, even Cape Fear. Besson’s having some fun, and DeNiro seems to enjoy the affection.
De Niro’s chemistry with Michelle Pfeiffer, playing his wife, gives the film a little heart. It’s great to see these two seasoned veterans share the screen, and Pfeiffer’s displaced and disgruntled Italian American is fun to watch.
The storyline for the couple’s two teens is weaker, and Besson seems almost disinterested in the involvement of the WPP agents, including saggy faced sourpuss Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).
It’s an action comedy that’s a little short on action. The comedy is pleasant and fun, but never truly funny. What keeps this light but violent romp entertaining is its own sense of joy and its love of Robert De Niro. Which may not be the best reason to make a film, but there are worse.