Benny Crick in Paris
Dirs: Ariel Zeitoun, Julien Seri. France. 2001. 90mins.
With his Taxi and Taxi 2 notched among the all-time French commercial blockbusters, Luc Besson (in his capacity as producer-writer but not director) appears to have struck a new vein of box office gold. Yamakasi has tapped into the same young audiences that have made Taxi a cultural phenomenon and profit-spinning franchise. Its first week in France saw it enter the box office at number two, taking $5m off 500 screens. No doubt it will become a household name in France and overseas, where the Besson trademark translates into solid receipts.
The film is also the first to be distributed by Besson's (and former Gaumont exec Pierre-Ange Le Pogam's) new company Europa.
What makes this quirky tale of acrobatic, underprivileged youths involved in fleet-footed Robin Hoodery among the rich-and-heinous immediately more appealing than Taxi is that the heroes are not actors, but real-life youths essentially playing themselves. The 'Yamakasi' is a group of friends from a housing estate outside Paris. Dubbed - the samurais of modern times -, they kill the boredom and ugliness of their no-horizon lives by perfecting their acrobatic skills scaling the tower blocks of their neighbourhoods in the wee hours of the morning while thumbing their nose at the police.
The group (a Senegalese, two Vietnamese, a central-African, a New Caledonian, a Zairian and a Franco-Italian) have previously appeared together in a clip and a short and did some stuntwork on Taxi 2. As producer and co-writer of their first feature-length vehicle, Besson has wisely kept the plot, characterisations and social realism to a simplistic minimum in order to better highlight the group as the collective embodiment of grace and poetry in motion.
The wafer-thin script sees an estate youth in need of an emergency heart transplant - but hospital authorities demand complete payment of $60,000 by noon the next day if the operation is to take place. With a healthy contempt for the police, the bourgeoisie and the medical profession, our heroes decide to raise the money by burgling the posh flats and mansions of several prominent surgeons, all board members of a filthy-rich organ transplant organisation.
From the opening expository reel of the group climbing a hi-rise facade as police rush ineptly to intercept them, the film bounces along on the daredevil energies of these appealing youngsters. The script is sometimes irresponsibly smug in its contempt for the medical profession - but no matter. It all breaks down into a series of zippy, funny, acrobatic skits and rooftop chase set-pieces, and the gang's confidence and good humour is infectious. One looks forward to further adventures of these spiritual Third World heirs of Harold Lloyd and Douglas Fairbanks.
Ariel Zeitoun stepped into the director's shoes in mid-production after Besson took co-screenwriter and first-time director Julien Seri off the production, alleging the shoot had fallen behind schedule due to his disorganisation. A French court has since ordered Besson to pay Seri $50,000 for unfair dismissal; however, the latter's attempt (with co-writer Lyon) to halt Yamakazi's release, claiming their rights as author had not been observed, failed.
Prod cos:Leeloo Productions/TF1 Films Production. Dist (Fr):Europa. Int'l dist: Leeloo. Exec prod: Luc Besson. Scr: Besson, Pilippe Lyon, Julien Seri based on a story idea by Charles Perriere and Besson. Cinematography: Philippe Piffeteau. Ed: CF Husson. Sound: Laurent Zeilig. Music: Joey Starr, DJ Spank. Main cast Chau Belle Dinh, William Belle, Malik Diouf, Yann Hnautra, Guylain N'Guba Boyeke, Charles Perriere, Laurent Piemontesi.