Action film fans will forgive a lot if we get enough from “the cool parts” of a thriller. Luc Besson built an entire career out of that.
“Subway” (1985) launched the future director of “The Professional,” “The Fifth Element,” “Nikita,” “Lucy” and “Anna” into the international action spotlight, a thriller with a punchy opening, a punch-drunk finale and a lot of tedium in between. But “the cool parts” are what you come for — a chase or two, the sight of a pre-stardom Jean Reno as a homeless hustler and drummer nicknamed “Sticks,” the vivid depiction of a subterranean underworld beneath Paris.
Many of Besson’s trademarks — he later wrote (or came up with the stories) and produced “The Transporter” and “Taken” movies — are present in this, his second feature. We see rude French folk, a seedy criminal world policed by brusque, hapless and goofily inept cops, Jean Reno and over-coifed and over-dressed antihero criminals and breathless bits of action set to an electronic funk score by frequent collaborator Eric Serra.
The storytelling can feel haphazard, which may explain why the guy who ventured into a Joan of Arc period piece (“The Messenger”), an utterly mesmerizing competitive free-diving drama (“The Big Blue”) and science fiction has basically settled into repeated versions of “Nikita” starring fetching young actresses in his dotage. Well, that and the creepier side of his personality explain his fixation on young to very young starlets.
The then-unknown Lambert plays Fred, a handsome hustler/safe-cracker who repays the invitation a beautiful woman (Isabelle Adjani) gives him to a posh party by blowing her safe and stealing her “papers.”
When we meet the hair-gelled Fred, he’s fumbling through cassettes in a hurtling stolen Peugeot, trying to find proper tunes to be chased with. He’s in a tux, and four armed goons in tuxes in a big ’80s Mercedes are ramming the tiny Peugeot from behind as he makes his getaway.
He flees into the subway and stumbles into a vast underworld beneath the tracks, escalator motors, plumbing and wiring. He may meet the Skater (Jean-Hugues Anglade), a notorious pickpocket from that pre-rollerblade era, who takes him in and shows him around. But Fred isn’t very good at this extortion thing.
Helene (Adjani), his “mark,” calls his bluff and lowballs him. That’s OK. He’ll hang on to the papers, which include a childhood photo of the woman he decides “I am in love” with.
“You want me,” she asks, in French with English subtitles? “Oui.” “Well, you won’t GET me!”
The fact that a crew of goons chased him should scare Fred off. Helene is married to the mob.
Michel Galabru leads the subway police force, fighting a losing battle against the thieves and squatters who infest the system. He has little faith in his uniformed force, even less in the detectives he’s contemptuously nicknamed “Batman and Robin.”
Fred? He’s just a guy who can’t sing who’s decided to “get a band” together. Reno, as “Sticks,” and assorted other subway dwellers flesh it out as the movie meanders off course through its middle acts.
The plot skips over some things and flat out stumbles into others. The cops who try to help Helene have been hunting this damned “Skater” for almost a year. She marches downstairs and stumbles right into him.
The fake-blind “florist” (Richard Bohringer) figures into the hunt for the underground crooks and the missing “papers.” There’s also a hint of a heist, which Fred may jump into if he gets bored getting the band together.
But whatever failings the story and pacing may have, this much was obvious from the start. Besson has a way with action beats, an eye for striking compositions and exotic — if often seamy locales — and a nose for talent. He went on to write and produce the “District B13” and a lot of the action films that define our times.
Back in 1985, he was all about the hair, making his muse Reno a star and bringing French action films up to date. He did.
These days we can watch “Subway” to marvel over the music, the lighting and the staggering amount of hair product consumed on one film shoot. But we stay for “the cool parts,” which he promises with this film’s opening chase, a promise he only keeps over the course of the decades of films that he was able to make thanks to this quirky, uneven star-making vehicle.
Rating: R, violence, profanity
Cast: Christopher Lambert, Isabelle Adjani, Richard Bohringer, Michel Galabru, Jean-Hugues Anglade and Jean Reno.
Credits: Directed by Luc Besson, scripted by Pierre Jolivet, Alain Le Henry, Marc Perrioer, Sophie Schmit and Luc Besson. A Gaumont release on Tubi, Amazon, other streamers
Running time: 1:42