The Messenger delivers a captivating and intense spectacle

No, it’s not The Fifth Element II. Nevertheless, Milla Jovovich reprises her role as “the perfect being” in her latest effort with director/ex-husband Luc Besson entitled, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. She does so with remarkable skill, completing the vaunted model-to-actress transformation and certainly surpassing Cameron Diaz’s “talent.”

The movie begins with Joan’s description of an idyllic life in her hometown, where she goes to church every day in order to pray for atonement. During confession, she reveals that she regularly sees visions of a young man; these visions later form the basis for her mission. The man ages along with Joan, until she is old enough to begin her crusade to reclaim France for the French.

Anglophiles beware! This film’s plot exposition consists of the mandatory, formative years filled with town-sacking, sister-raping English, who have declared war on France after the Dauphin refuses to hand his country over to the English king (still an infant according to the brief, Episode IV-esque introduction to the movie). History aside, Joan’s actual inspiration seems to be the particularly disgusting rape of her sister. Besson displays the first of many nuances in the movie, having the English fiends behave in varying manners during this scene, one showing disgust, another delight and the third a hungry stomach.

The characters in the Dauphin’s court are all appropriately complex, with varying motives emerging at different points throughout the narrative. John Malkovich and Faye Dunaway both act admirably as the Dauphin and his mother, despite relatively small roles. The Dauphin, after having been besieged by Joan for an army to lead against the English, finally capitulates after meeting her for the first time. For all of the Dauphin’s power, he and Joan appear equally devoid of real intelligence.

Jovovich, as Joan, displays little depth of character at all during most of the movie, an absence that is both alarming and carefully staged. She exists only as a spirited French cheerleader who rouses her men from slumber in order to kill the equally sleep-deprived English.

For every cheerleader, of course, there are a dozen football players, and The Messenger doesn’t fail to deliver. Joan’s army is led by a group of rough and ready French knights who vacillate between swordplay and wordplay with equal aplomb. At one point, one of the men complains that the French captains decided to go along with Joan’s machinations too soon. To this, the other captain replies, “But she suggested we attack! And I always attack!”

This is what makes the first half of the movie so enjoyable, namely, the well-choreographed battle scenes. Early into the second battle (after miraculously defeating a small English stockade with the help of some fancy horsework), Joan climbs a ladder to lead her French army to victory. She is then promptly retired with an arrow.

Rather than perform the clichéd move and rip the arrow out of her armor, she simply stares at her attacker as she falls to the large crowd of soldiers. Immediately, the French abandon their attack and give up all hope. Sure enough, Joan recovers (the movie isn’t that free of cliché) and leads her men to victory, yet the point is subtly made that Joan is not inhuman, nor is she infallible.

This point is later hammered home when Joan loses her quest to retake Paris. Her Dauphin already satisfied by his coronation at Reims, Joan lacks the power to enlist a new army of men, and is subsequently sold out to the English, who lock her up and, in one of the few faults in the movie, apparently dye her hair brown. (It is blonde throughout the first part of the movie.)

The latter part of the movie has a typical beginning, with Joan on “trial” for heresy. Although French clergy are in charge of the trial, the English presence is clearly there to enforce “justice.” Having heard enough of the actual Joan of Arc’s story, the end seems inevitable.

Yet Besson has one more ace up his sleeve: Dustin Hoffman. A strange character cast as Joan’s “conscience,” he emerges to pose a series of troubling questions for Joan as she lies imprisoned. The humor present in the first part of the movie of a Die Hard variety, morphs into a more nuanced form, making both Joan and the audience rethink their notions of faith, belief and causality.

Hoffman’s performance is clearly the best of the entire movie, changing Joan’s deadpan, “go-get-’em” attitude into a troubling mask concealing a series of all-too-human desires. Her earlier single-mindedness breaks down, resulting in (big surprise) her eventual martyrdom. This is madness turned medieval: Joan cannot return to normal life, and regardless of whether she renounces her visions, she will find her death in fire. In the end, The Messenger is more thought-provoking than The Professional, more action-packed than La Femme Nikita and cinematographically almost better than The Fifth Element. Besson, the ardent Francophile, has managed to come through again.

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