Back in 1998, Luc Besson concocted an idea for a movie that would be sheer mayhem. According to lore, he had in mind nothing more than creating a serviceable story thread on which to hang a lot of vehicular action and the excuse to wreck a lot of cars: he wanted to destroy more motor vehicles than any other film in movie history.
These were the modest, or grandiose, origins of Taxi. He promoted it as the ultimate car-crash film and no-one disputed his claim. Besson took the writing credit but handed over the directing reins to dependable veteran director Gerard Pires. It was a winning idea that grossed over $50m in France and proved a dependable programmer in most of the rest of the world.
It opened almost literally with both barrels blazing as the film's hero by default finds himself in the middle of a shootout between cops and robbers in the streets of Marseilles. The film concludes with a spectacular car chase and the epic car smash-up. So what's not to like'
Mind the language
Taxi and its subsequent chequered trio of follow-ups have been an incredible ride and a warhorse of a commercial franchise in Europe. But they have never played commercially in the US.
Taxi 4 opened a month ago in France, Belgium and Switzerland. Last weekend it debuted in Russia and the Ukraine to more than $9m and in its fifth weekend on release has sold about $50m worth of tickets.
In the coming months it will open in the rest of Europe, Asia and South America but, apart from Quebec, it is not likely to have more than token exposure at second-tier festivals in the rest of North America.
Conscious or not, there has been an antipathy towards foreign-language action movies in the US. There certainly have been waves of popularity for sword and sandal epics, spaghetti westerns and Asian martial arts fare as long as they were dubbed into English. However, only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon managed to keep its original tongue and make a lot of money.
The Taxi example is by no means unique. Crimson Rivers is another film that was the top grosser in debuts in France, Italy, Mexico, Japan and Quebec among other territories. It actually had the semblance of a release in America but was consigned to a few arthouses and eked out less than $1m. Subtitles also limited the exposure of Ong Bak, Night Watch and District B-13. Theatre owners seem to believe their customers cannot or will not read.
Found in translation
Besson, whose record demonstrates a canny sense for the commercial zeitgeist, has to be wrestling with ideas to break through America's invisible shield. His French-language films as well as other non-English genre films are no less foreign to Argentinians or Malaysians yet they play in those countries as mainstream rather than limited appeal pictures.
The film-maker has been sufficiently astute to play in many arenas and this attitude has produced a series of films with Fox, including The Transporter.
There was also an English-language version of Taxi that did not appear to have much connection to the 1998 film other than a common title. Language really was not and is not the chief obstacle in creating something that is entertaining. With so many films struggling to secure screens, it would be nice to believe the good ones might be found in translation.
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