Subway July 10, 2016
Cinematically, Subway is all style without shame — it’s all underground chase scenes, street fashion, tough talk, anomalous musical interludes, and behavioral flamboyancy, meaning and the much-sought-after thing known as depth all but pushed aside. That materialism, though, is fortunately explainable and surprisingly welcome: Subway is among the era-defining movies of cinéma du look, a French film movement characterized by electric visual brio complemented by an ensemble comprised of alienated, sometimes eccentric youths.
Subway is a comedy thriller that figures its aesthetic is its greatest asset, not emotional impact nor an intelligible storyline. Akin to the romanticism that indulges the cult of a tragic legend, it pushes past anything resembling reality and heads straight for celluloid-hosted fantasy.
One could accuse Subway of being shallow, of being obsessed with presentation and not with the necessary histrionics associated with a masterpiece of a film. But because it announces itself as a chic quasi-successor to the French New Wave almost immediately, we embrace its pep; its reliance on imagery is so effective because it doesn’t strive to be anything more than a descent into style. Its fascinating performances, inspired direction, and good-enough plotline are all things that impede vapidness.
Luc Besson, an influential action filmmaker (Nikita, The Fifth Element), co-wrote and directed Subway at the tender age of twenty-six, having only helmed two films before it. Like most cinematic masters, his talent is obvious even in his formative filmmaking years. Material as niche-oriented as Subway’s is not so easily accessible, but Besson’s exuberant flair makes it amusing rather than off-puttingly pleased with itself.
It’s hard to resist, anyway. It stars a charming (and pre-The Highlander) Christopher Lambert as Fred, a bottle blond small-time crook taking refuge in various Paris Métro stations after robbing the safe of a corrupted entrepreneur during a party. In no shape to think about anything besides evading his currently dire situation, which involves hot pursuit from his victim’s henchmen as well as the French police, he makes the most of his plight, familiarizing himself with the many colorful low-lifes that call the underground their home.
But Fred’s scrappiness cannot serve him forever. There comes a point in which running is no longer an option, when trying to outsmart authorities will eventually be impossible. So this dooms a blossoming (albeit forced) relationship with Héléna (Isabelle Adjani), the much younger trophy wife of the aforementioned businessman.
But when the plot predictably verges on tedium, Besson has all the right moves to make Subway feel alive. The film is exquisitely cast (I especially took a liking to Adjani’s increasingly rebellious housewife who yearns for something dangerous), and the action is brainy but grounded in refreshing realism (its police versus roller-skated protagonist chase in the subway is superlative, and the opening car chase is a fittingly explosive way to introduce the film’s untamable personality). It’s a lot of fun, and Besson and his team of actors know plenty about providing seemingly unattainable cool. It’s an essential look into a limited movement that gave France some of its most cinematically compelling works. B+