Because I believe the judicial system often miscarries (Think O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony.), I have always been partial to revenge films in which someone who suffers an outrageous wrong or injury decides to be judge, jury, and executioner. Some of my favorites are “Carrie,” “Death Wish,” “Cape Fear,” and “I Spit on Your Grave” (A remake of this one is coming soon.) But in my opinion the best revenge film ever made is “Kill Bill, Vols. 1 and 2,” in which Uma Thurman as Beatrix Kiddo slices and dices her way through hundreds of nasty people on her way to finding the guy who tried to kill her on her wedding day. Great stuff.
The most recent film in the revenge genre is “Columbiana,” and although it’s not in the same league as “Kill Bill,” it provides a very satisfactory fix for those of us who enjoy watching scumbags get their comeuppance at the hands of their victims. It also stars Zoe Saldana, one of Hollywood’s best young actresses.
When she was just 8 years old, Cataleya (Amandla Stena) witnesses the murder of her family in Bogota at the hands of crime kingpin Don Luis (Beto Benites) and his head honcho, Marco (Jordi Molla), and from that moment she vows that she will not rest until Luis and his thugs have been dully punished.
Fifteen years later we find Cataleya (Saldana) living in Chicago, where she works as an assassin for her uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis), but on her own time she is systematically killing off all of Luis’s men, and with each body she leaves a lipstick drawing of the Columbiana orchid for which she is named.
After she has wiped out 22 of Luis’s associates in just four months, the police and the FBI are frantically searching for what they believe to be a male serial killer. So far Cataleya has managed to avoid any suspicion about her involvement in the murders, but when the FBI receives a lead from a very unlikely source, the race is on to see whether or not she can avoid being captured before she has the chance to exact her ultimate revenge upon Luis.
From its very beginning, “Columbiana” is a fast-paced action thriller that will suck you in and hold your attention until its most satisfying (for revenge lovers) and imaginative denouement. Many times such films have the villain die a death without much suffering, but that’s not the case here. Trust me when I tell you that Cataleya devises a very fitting end for Luis.
One of the things this film has going for it is that it contains some great action sequences, beginning with a terrific chase scene early on. Also Cataleya’s first victim is an inmate in a prison, and the plan that she devises to take him out is as elaborate as it is brilliant. And later in the film we are treated to a superbly choreographed hand-to-hand battle between and one of her victims.
Saldana is perfectly cast in the role of Cataleya because she is both beautiful and possesses a lithe, athletic body that makes her a natural for the fight scenes in which she is involved. In the film’s production notes Saldana explained that it was during a meeting with producer Luc Beeson (“Le Femme Nikita”) when she decided she wanted the part.
“When Luc approached me to star in the movie, I asked him what it was about. He said, ‘It’s as if Mathilda (from Léon/The Professional) is all grown up and became an assassin.’ That was it; I was in. It hit all the beats of a classic revenge film, but it was also compelling and very moving.”
Being the consummate professional that she is, Saldana realized she would need a lot of preparation for her role as Cataleya, and in the production notes she revealed where she obtained it.
“She’s trained by her uncle, a thug. Her training would be less graceful, more animal and volatile. She’s a Molotov cocktail of weapon and fight training, picking up secondhand what her uncle picked up along the way. So I went to all of the experts that have trained me before, for other movies, and explained what I was looking for – here I am, this skinny little thing, talking to these retired veterans, these old ‘Dirty Harry’ types, telling them we couldn’t do the training they were used to – we had to cut every corner to make her look like a street fighter.”
Also in the production notes, Beeson offered his explanation for wanting Saldana to star in the film.
“Zoe is not only beautiful, she is also intelligent and good-hearted; she is filled with humanity and a great willpower. She was immediately seduced by her character. Zoe was for me the best choice, because we have not seen yet what she is capable of – even after Avatar, where her incredible acting was covered by special effects.”
Although “Columbiana” offers viewers good escape entertainment, it is not without its weaknesses. For example, Michael Vartan plays Danny Delaney, Cataleya’s love interest, but we really don’t know much about how they met and how their relationship developed to the point that they become lovers.
Another flaw in the film is that we never get a chance to see the kind of training Cataleya goes through to become a first-rate killer. One minute she’s an 8-year-old, and the next, she’s a female Rambo. One of the great things about the “Kill Bill” films was that we watched Beatrix go through an incredible training regimen to acquire her fabulous fighting skills.
Despite its drawbacks, however, “Columbiana” (Give it a score of seven.) is worth watching, and let’s hope that it provides the impetus for some good future roles for Saldana. In fact, she is so good in this part, that I can actually see a series about Cataleya, and a film with both Cataleya and Beatrix Kiddo in it would really kick ass!