03 FebColombiana (2011)

Image from bvonmovies.com

Directed by Olivier Megaton, U.S. DVD distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, starring Zoe Saldana.

As a connoisseur of all things girl power and a lover of female action heroines, I wanted to like this film. Needless to say, because of the ominous tone of my opening lines, I hated it (so much that I had trouble finishing it and that is saying quite a lot since I have been known to stick with a film, novel, or television series out of sheer stubbornness and a hyper-developed sense of loyalty).

On the surface, it sounds like a good bet. A young Colombian girl, Cataleya, witnesses her parents’ murder and grows up to be a professional assassin (or “hit wo-man”) determined to avenge their deaths. In traditional revenge film style, Colombiana, first spends a good deal of time establishing the origins of her female revenge story and then spends the rest of the time depicting her various acts of revenge (at the beginning of the film, there have already been 22).

In one of the more interesting sequences (ok, maybe it is one of the only interesting sequences), young Cataleya stabs her parents’ murderer in the hand and then engages in a series of impressive acrobatics as she launches herself onto the fire escape outside her parents home and dodges bullets from a machine gun. I couldn’t help but relate this scene to an increasingly popular trend in U.S. representation today, where adolescent (or even preadolescent) girls take on the roles of action heroine and/or female avenger (for examples, we might look to 2011’s Hanna, starring Saoirse Ronan, or 2010’s True Grit, co-starring Hailee Steinfeld, or the upcoming film adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy which will star Jennifer Lawrence). And there is something truly pleasurable about spectacular combinations of (often petite) girlish femininity and masculinizing aggression.

However, the rest of the film is irretrievably marred by significant plot holes and silly performances (I suppose I should have known when I saw Michael Vartan, of ALIAS and Never Been Kissed fame, was cast as Cataleya’s tattooed lover). Zoe Saldana, who plays the adult Cataleya, has starred in a number of blockbuster Hollywood films, including Avatar and Star Trek. In both films, she played the plucky love interests and sexy sidekicks of male action heroes. In this film, she takes center stage in a number of action sequences (albeit in skintight catsuits and miniskirts that emphasize her diminutive figure). However, her dead-eyed character is too cold to be accessible or identifiable (unlike Rooney Mara’s performance in David Fincher’s Hollywood adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which I think draws you in and makes you want to know more about her) and the cinematic obsession with her physical beauty, represented by the incredible amount of screen time dedicated to her character as she dresses and undresses and then dresses again, made it impossible for me to enjoy the displays of female power. As a whole, Saldana’s roles seem to me to be emblematic of the extent to which spectacles of female activity, sexual aggressivity, and power have to be paired with displays of female objectification and containment. So perhaps the film’s major shortcomings can all be traced back to its tagline, “Vengeance is beautiful.”

Colombiana is a great example of something I have often said to my women and media students at San Francisco State… displays of female power are not necessarily empowering for women. Rather, they often seem to point to our culture’s confused and ambivalent efforts to process and acknowledge significant social change (for instance, the mainstreaming of feminist ideals and messages such as that girls can do anything boys can) and to maintain the status quo.

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