5. “Subway” (1985)
The only Besson movie that makes it possible to understand how he and Leos Carax were ever lumped into the same artistic movement, “Subway” is a rush of youthful energy so raw and well-realized that it steamrolls any of the director’s attempts to cohere it into an actual story. The action begins with a bleach blonde Christopher Lambert trying to find the perfect cassette tape as he races ahead of some henchmen during a high-speed chase. By the time that our hero makes it to the Paris metro and disappears into the tracks, it’s already clear that Besson cares less about the character than he does where he’s going.
For someone whose formative films were set underground and underwater, Besson has never been particularly interested in what’s beneath the surface. For him, style is substance — and to that end, “Subway” is something of a mission statement. The movie is populated by characters who are empowered by their eccentricities. There’s an unstoppable pickpocket known as “The Roller-skater” (remember the ’80s?) who wheels away from the cops. There’s a dude whose muscles are too big for any t-shirt, but he comes in handy when Lambert needs someone to break his handcuffs. And there’s Isabelle Adjani, playing a bored trophy wife who hangs around the fringes of this story, whose wild hair is like a weathervane for her personal liberty. It’s hard to care about what any of these characters do with their lives, but it’s even harder to deny that they lived them to the fullest.
4. “The Big Blue” (1988)
Besson’s live-action Studio Ghibli vibe has never been stronger than it was in his breakthrough film, a personal project he first dreamed up as a teenager. The story of two rival freedivers (Jean-Marc Barr and Jean Reno) who obsessively compete to see which one of them can plunge deeper into the heart of the ocean without an oxygen tank, “The Big Blue” turns a childhood love of the sea into an epic story of camaraderie and obsession. Reno is absurdly great as a womanizing Italian stereotype with a growling deadpan, Barr is always beautiful when framed against the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean, and Rosanna Arquette brings a whole lot of spunk to a role that only exists for its sex appeal.
It’s great to watch these characters constantly try to outdo each other, because this is what Besson does best: Send thin but instantly lovable characters into strange new places, wherever they might be. Love at first sight, anamorphic lenses, an underwater champagne toast, and Griffin Dunne as a flustered magazine editor… what more could you really want?
3. “Lucy” (2014)
On the day that “Lucy” opened in the U.S., a note that Luc Besson allegedly attached to the front page of his film’s script began to circulate around the web. “This film is extremely visual,” Besson wrote. “It is difficult to describe in words without running the risk of losing or boring the reader.” Yup. “The beginning is ‘Leon,’ the middle is ‘Inception,’ and the end is ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’” With self-analysis like that, who needs critics?
A monotonous Scarlett Johansson stars as an American party girl whose time in Taipei takes a turn for the weird when she’s forced to become a mule for a mind-expanding new super-drug. The package bursts in her stomach, thousands of the little blue crystals inside begin to spill into her bloodstream, and what begins as the greatest Adderall rush of all time quickly evolves into something more profound as Lucy starts tapping into the dormant potential of the human brain.
There’s a scene towards the end of this bizarro multiplex smash where Lucy has learned to use more than 80% of her cerebral cortex and is rapidly evolving into a perfect cross between Dr. Manhattan and a high-end perfume ad. As stalagmites of gooey black nanotechnology ooze from her body and the film begins to feel like a glossy version of “Akira” that wouldn’t dare infringe on the beauty of its star, Besson’s vision for the film finally comes into perfect focus: This isn’t just the story of a woman who realizes the full potential of her brain, it’s also the story of a filmmaker remembering the full potential of his favorite genre. “Lucy” isn’t a step into a brave new world, it’s a challenge to do more with the one we’ve got. Besson isn’t reinventing action cinema, he’s simply reminding us that it can be as limitless as the cinema, itself.
2. “The Fifth Element” (1997)
Besson’s deliriously imaginative space opera, in which a Jean-Paul Gautier model is grown in a futuristic petri dish and forced to become the ass-kicking savior of all humanity, is the blazing supernova at the tail end of Besson’s first hot streak (and the best summer movie of 1997). It’s also the flamboyant, nerd-ass kind of spectacle that could only be imagined by a teenage kid, or an adult who never grew up.
Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) is looking for the perfect woman — he finds her, and how. It turns out she’s a stark naked Milla Jovovich. And from the moment she swan dives into the back seat of Korben’s flying cab, “The Fifth Element” is almost as perfect as she is. Throwing us into an astonishingly well-realized sci-fi world that’s populated with great heroes, even better villains (Zorg! Those humanoid space dog things!), and an endless array of great characters who fall somewhere in between (every supporting role is ingeniously cast, from Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod to Tiny Lister as the galactic President), Besson forges a modern classic that makes old ideas feel new again.
1. “Léon: The Professional” (1994)
Peak Besson in every way, “Léon: The Professional” delivers his most endearing Jean Reno character, his most discomforting portrayal of a (very) young woman on the verge of a (very) personal transformation, and his most instantly percussive Éric Serra score. It prioritizes cool style over common sense at every possible juncture — how else to explain Léon’s superhuman ability to fade into the shadows and crannies of the Manhattan apartments where he goes about his business? — and it hinges on an unlikely friendship that could only exist in the movies. It’s the most Besson thing that is, was, or ever will be, and it also happens to be the best.
A lonely hitman with a heart of gold and a soft spot for “Singin’ in the Rain,” Léon (Reno) is one of contemporary cinema’s finest simpletons. Besson is at his best when he’s pushing everything just a bit too far, and Reno’s lovable turn helps cement the movie as an urban fairytale. Meanwhile, pint-sized Natalie Portman sells us on her homicidal Lolita by playing Mathilda as a girl who’s so precocious that it even affects her grief. Meanwhile, Gary Oldman’s performance as Norman Stansfield is so big that you can actually see it from space. Who’s great in this movie? EEVVVVERRRRYYYOOOOONEEEEE! (See below.)
Cut together with a degree of precision that’s almost entirely absent from the rest of Besson’s work, “Léon” is as surgical as its soft-spoken hero. The action scenes are crazed but always character-driven, the music feels like it’s sprouting directly from the drama, and Besson’s vision of a sweltering Manhattan summer is every bit as evocative as the film worlds he created for “Valerian” or “The Fifth Element.” He may be a foreigner, but this is a world he knows like the back of his hand: Big guns. Brutish men. Delicate-looking girls who harbor more power than you could possibly imagine. And, binding them all together, a sense that the most beautiful things in life aren’t meant for us to keep or contain. Whether a houseplant or a troubled kid with a bright future, if you love something you have to let it grow.