Dir: Louis-Pascal Couvelaire

Luc Besson is backseat driving again. The latest model to roll off his EuropaCorp action movie assembly line is called Michel Vaillant, the name of a champion race car driver who is indeed valiant on wheels or off but who won't keep the ghost of Steve McQueen up nights worrying about his crown.

Once again Besson didn't direct, just wrote and produced and rounded up the financing for this Euros 21m production, strapping into the driver's seat a relative newcomer named Louis-Pascal Couvelaire, entrusted to efficiently following the master's directions without driving off the beaten track of convention.

But if first day Paris admission figures are any indication, the crowd isn't roaring as they should be. Maybe Besson's vast youth audience finds his mega-hit Taxi franchise enough for motorised kicks. Or maybe they're trying to tell Besson that it's time he got back in the driver's seat himself. (Besson hasn't directed a film since his 1999 Joan of Arc opus, The Messenger).

Besson no doubt calculated the movie's source material something of a commercial safety net: a now cult comic book (or graphic novel), Michel Vaillant was created by Belgian illustrator Jean Graton in 1957. 63 albums later, the strip has sold 20 million copies and is considered as popular in Europe as Batman is in America. It spawned both a live-action and cartoon series on French TV back in the 60s (both now forgotten). Now comes this film. It is likely compensate in other markets where the comic and Besson have a following, but is unlikely to get anywhere near English-language territories (the first Michel Vaillant adventure only appeared in America in the mid-90s.)

Ironically, Besson and co-writer Gilles Malencon considered none of Graton's 64 adventures serviceable for a feature length film adaptation, so they made one up, respecting the basic characters created by Graton: namely, the members of the Vaillant family, a leading European car manufacturing dynasty whose youngest generation is represented by Michel, a prince of the racing circuits. In the Besson backstory, The Vaillants have beaten and humiliated another car manufacturing family, the Leaders, and now the beautiful but evil daughter of the deceased rival (Lisa Barbuscia) is out to get even by beating them at the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. She uses sabotage, seduction and kidnapping, but Michel prevails in the end and crosses the finish line as he always has: first.

As par for the course, the special effects and the stunt work (by Michel Julienne) are impressive, but with characters that are little more than stick figures and a plot that works by numbers there is little nail-chewing suspense or dramatic identification. Sagamore Stevenin (one of the three thespian-offspring of that fine actor, Jean-Francois Stevenin) has a quiet authority that suggests the birth of a real acting temperament. One winces, however, at the wasted presence of such veterans as Beatrice Agenin and Jean-Pierre Cassel as Michel's parents.

Prod cos: EuropaCorp, TF1 Films Production, The Prod
Int'l Sales: EuropaCorp
Exec prod: Pierre-Ange Le Pogam
Scr: Luc Besson, Gilles Malencon, based on the comic strip by Jean Graton
DoP: Michel Abramowicz
Ed: Herve Schneid
Prod des: Jimmy Vansteenkiste
Main cast: Sagamore Stevenin, Peter Youngblood Hills, Diane Kruger, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Beatrice Agenin, Philippe Bas, Lisa Barbuscia, Jeanne Mauran