WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: Bungling Marseilles cop Émilien is charged with catching an arrogant group of Mercedes-driving German bank robbers. Just one catch: he’s probably the worst driver in France. So when he nabs wannabe racing driver Daniel for travelling around the city at ludicrous speeds, a pact is born; Daniel gets to keep his licence if, and only if, he helps Émilien to grab the bad guys. The uneasy partnership delights Émilien’s suffocating mother, though Daniel’s new girlfriend Lilly believes he should be driving her wild with passion, rather than escorting an idiot round the streets.
You can’t watch everything as a reviewer, though quite why I’ve managed to catch Road House 2 in the last year, but not The Seven Samurai, remains something of a mystery. However, I think it’s always useful to follow up a film of one kind with something as different as possible, to keep a perspective on the whole wide world of movies. So, following on from my recent reviews of Inception, featuring Marion Cotillard, and Taxi Driver, in a six degrees of separation-stylee I was driven to dig out the Luc Besson-written and produced Taxi.
Daniel Morales (Samy Naceri) is a legend in Marseilles’ pizza-delivering community, so much so that when he leaves he’s treated to a parade from his colleagues and finally gets together with the lovely Lilly (Cotillard). Well, almost; he’s so desperate to become a taxi driver that he leaves her unsatisfied to fill out the forms. Daniel soon becomes notorious on the streets of Marseilles, since his super souped-up white Peugeot allows him to get passengers to their destinations at incredibly high speeds. He also earns the admiration of passenger Camille (Manuela Gourary), but his meeting with her son Émilien (Frédéric Diefenthal) is less happy; for Émilien is a cop and not at all impressed by Daniel’s recklessness during a particularly bumpy ride home.
Émilien threatens to take Daniel’s licence, but soon hits on a better idea: since he is such a rotten driver, he can use Daniel to help catch some pesky German bank robbers, a group of chleux so arrogant in their methods and their Mercedes getaway cars that they advertise where they’re going to strike next. The pair strike up a strange partnership, with Daniel getting the maladroit Émilien out of scrapes and cooking up a trap for the foreigners, whilst the diminutive gendarme can only set fire to his mother’s house and completely fail to impress either his statuesque blonde colleague Petra (Emma Sjoberg) or his rabidly xenophobic boss.
I was originally going to say that French Comedies aren’t funny, but that’s clearly not only an absurd generalisation but also patently untrue. What can more accurately be said is that whilst there are some very good French comedies, the humour rarely comes across well to Anglophone audiences, which is why films with decent concepts – La Cage Aux Folles, Trois Hommes et un Couffin – are most often remade, though the most successful French comedy Les Visiteurs was a terrible flop when it became Just Visiting.
Anyway, the point here is that whilst there are good French comedies, Taxi certainly isn’t one of them. The level of the jokes here rarely goes much above the puerile, with the emphasis on Daniel’s coitus interruptus with Lilly and Émilien’s puppy-dog obsession with Petra. I promise this opinion isn’t based on not understanding the film, as although I must have missed nuances in the script, my French isn’t so bad that I had to rely on subtitles to follow what was being said.
It’s not as if the story’s great, either. You might assume that the bank robberies would bring their own thrills and spills but they are perfunctorily filmed, Besson investing the robbers with no more characteristics than flailing machine guns, Germanic sneers and different disguises for each bank job.
The leads are barely better served: Daniel is essentially infallible, a brilliant driver also given to sparkling quips and flawless hunches that lead the mismatched pair ever closer to the Germans, whilst Émilien is a small, squeaky man with a small, petty mind to match, his main talent causing mayhem and ruining his colleagues’ best-laid plans. Naceri isn‘t completely charmless and his Daniel’s never actively annoying, though he’s a cocky swine you don’t easily warm to; neither is Diefenthal tremendously sympathetic, though to be fair he plays the farceur quite well.
Given all this, you might wonder if Taxi has anything to recommend it. Luckily, the film is on much surer footing when it comes to filming the car stuff, the one thing it has to do well. As soon as Daniel swaps his taxi’s plain steering wheel for a bespoke racing one, Taxi shifts up a gear and offers the excitement you want it to deliver from start to finish. Even though it relies on the robbers acting completely illogically, in the final chase there are glimpses of what might have been as Daniel leaves the bad guys high and dry; these pacy, thrilling scenes make you wish the film had spent much less of its time on stodgy comedy and pratfalls.
If you’ve not seen French cinema before, Taxi is probably a good film to watch as a way in, since it completely eschews the sophistication of French Cinema in favour of a simplistic, masculine accessibility; the appropriation of Dick Dale’s Misirlou from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack tells you everything you need to know. But while this could have been worse (one day I’ll see Queen Latifah’s remake and despair completely), I do think this could have been much better, and could have dispensed with its goofy edge without losing any of the elements that draw in the Fast and the Furious crowd. Watchable, after a fashion, but disappointingly dumb.