With such a varied body of work behind him, you can’t help but wonder sometimes if there’s more than one Luc Besson. Working variously as writer, director and/or producer, he’s been involved over the years with so many different movie projects in different capacities, both in his native France, as well as in mainstream Hollywood pictures.
So many movies have Besson’s fingerprints on them in one way or another: Arthur And The Invisibles, the trilogy of Taken films, The Fifth Element, Léon: The Professional, La Femme Nikita, District 13, Lucy and Revolver, to name but a few. From children’s movies, to science fiction, action thrillers, and historicals, there aren’t too many film genres which have been left untouched by Besson in a career that is now entering its fifth decade.
It was while he was working on The Fifth Element in 1995 that Besson first came up with the idea of a high-octane action-comedy buddy movie, based around the exploits of a taxi driver in Marseille. He wrote the film script during the 30-day wait to see whether or not Columbia Pictures would go ahead and finance The Fifth Element; it was completed on the day that Columbia came back with the green light to get The Fifth Element underway.
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As a consequence, Besson would now be too busy to direct the other script himself, so he elected to produce it instead, and handed the reins to Gérard Pirès. In the run up to the start of filming, fate intervened as Pirès fell from a horse, which put him in the hospital. As permits issued by the city of Marseille only ran for a set period of time, and the start date couldn’t be deferred, Gérard Krawczyk stepped in and got shooting underway in Pirès‘ absence.
Little was Besson to know that this film – Taxi – would spawn four sequels, an American remake starring Queen Latifah, Jimmy Fallon and Gisele Bündchen, and a further remake as a series on American TV, called Taxi Brooklyn; Besson’s script was also to heavily influence the plot of a Bollywood movie entitled Dhoom, which has spawned its very own sequels. Taxi has become a phenomenon that’s unmatched by anything else in French cinema.
It tells the story of Daniel (Samy Naceri), a former pizza delivery driver in Marseille who’s just become a taxi driver, and crosses paths with Émilien (Frédéric Diefenthal) – he’s an incompetent Police inspector, and hires Daniel to take him to work, as he’s failed his driving test multiple times. Goaded into showing off all the special modifications that he’s made to his taxi, Daniel breaks several traffic laws in the process, not knowing Émilien‘s profession.
Finding himself in hot water, and at risk of losing both his licence and his livelihood, Daniel’s expertise and knowledge are employed by Émilien in helping to try and track down a gang of German bank robbers who’ve carried out a series of high-profile heists across Europe in souped-up Mercedes-Benz cars, and now hit Marseille. It literally becomes a race for Émilien to try and prove his worth to his bosses, and for Daniel to try and keep his licence in the process.
Besson later scripted the Transporter trilogy, which starred Jason Statham, and both seem to share a common DNA, as there are many clear similarities between them. 2002’s The Transporter opens with a bank robbery, and also features a high-speed getaway through the avenues and side-streets of Marseille; the protagonists both love their vehicles, and have made a variety of hidden alterations to improve their performance. These characters are both delivery drivers: one of illicit packages, the other of people; they each also have a reluctant alliance with a local Policeman.
If you’ve ever seen any of the Transporter movies, the first one in particular, then you’ll already have a pretty good feel for what Taxi is like; in some ways, it has a sense of being a dry-run for the later adventures of Statham’s Frank Martin, but still also manages to be its own thing. Taxi sets out its stall right from the off, with its credits playing over shots of Daniel’s pizza delivery scooter racing round Marseille, busily kicking up sparks, to the strains of ‘Misirlou’, popularised in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
The difference between the original Taxi and the execrable remake is like night and day, with Hollywood managing to strip out pretty much everything which had made the film so thoroughly enjoyable in the first place. Naceri‘s turn as Daniel is full of street racer swagger, firmly cocking a snook at all authority, yet still mustering charm and likeability; in contrast, Queen Latifah in the remake lacks the credibility needed to convince you that she’s capable of pulling off the same feats of driving ability.
Similarly, Diefenthal is so endearing in his earnest yet inept efforts to be a good Police officer, ingratiating himself with his ex – and now his superior – Petra (Emma Sjöberg), as well as looking after his widowed mother (Manuela Gourary). In Émilien, we get an understated, naturalistic performance by Diefenthal, which is likeable and it makes us root for him; in the American remake, Jimmy Fallon delivers us a grating, shrieking manchild, who engenders zero sympathy, with all his OTT mugging and showboating.
The French original is far superior in most ways, with all of the stunt driving sequences having a frantic, kinetic quality which makes the audience part of the scene, and brings a feeling of danger; they certainly show Hollywood a thing or two about action. It’s also rather interesting to see Marion Cotillard before she’d hit the mainstream, playing Daniel’s girlfriend Lilly, with this proving to be her breakthrough to the big time.
Naceri and Diefenthal play very well off each other, with all their characters’ traits complementing each other perfectly. If there’s any criticism to be made of Taxi, it’s the moments of casual xenophobia and sexism which creep in at times, in ways which are played for laughs, but feel inappropriate and a bit uncomfortable. While these are thankfully few and far between for the most part, they still jar when they crop up, and the supposed ‘humour’ simply doesn’t land when trying to make light of the un-PC remarks.
While the Taxi series is an ample demonstration of the law of diminishing returns, with each trip to the well seeming less rewarding than the last one, as the scenarios become increasingly more outlandish, the film which started it all is still something rather special. With a lean running time of just 86 minutes, it’s a more than welcome diversion, and it zips by quicker than Daniel’s Peugeot 406.
Taxi is out on Digital HD on 31st July and on Amazon Prime on 3rd August.