French filmmaker Luc Besson has long been among the world's finest purveyors of classy trash, making movies that are a combination of glossy style and gritty action. From his own films as director such as "La Femme Nikita" and "The Professional" to more recent efforts on which he served as producer and screenwriter like "Transporter" and "Taken," Besson has a knack for entertainment that is somehow smart and dumb, flashy and yet wise. His latest, "The Family," with Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, walks the same line.
"The Family" finds Besson in director, producer and co-screenwriter mode, adapting Tonino Benacquista's novel "Malavita" into a messy brew that is a bit too slack to get all the way to actually being good. "The Family" might be the movie equivalent of backyard sangria, a bunch of stuff thrown together into something unsubtle but that nevertheless has a kick all its own.
The film stars De Niro as a New York mob boss turned FBI informant who has been placed in hiding in France with his wife (Pfeiffer) and children (Dianna Agron and John D'Leo) to keep him safe from those who would still want him dead. De Niro has already traded so often on the intensity of his "Godfather" and "Goodfellas" screen presence that it's hard to remember when he was playing such a part in a straight, non-referential way. Likewise, Pfeiffer's presence brings to mind her roles from "Married to the Mob" and "Scarface."
The film is rooted in the comedy of manners of a family of swaggering old-school mob types fumbling their way through life in a provincial French country town. (That so many of the townsfolk speak English is likely a matter of simple practicality.) Their pursuers close in even as they settle into their new lives. De Niro's character passes himself off as a writer to explain why he hangs around the house all day and is invited to speak at the local film society. Instead of the print of "Some Came Running" with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, they are mis-shipped a copy of, well, something else.
The film then pushes into an atmosphere of self-awareness and referentiality that threatens to topple into clever cuteness in the same way as Julia Roberts being mistaken for Julia Roberts in "Ocean's Twelve." Besson shrewdly manages to use the teetering uncertainty of the moment to toss the film into an even higher gear of out-of-control mayhem as hit men arrive to attack De Niro and Co. The neighbors, the dog — no one is safe.
The thing that saves the movie time and again is Besson's uncanny ability to shift tone, sometimes even within a single sequence, from light comedy to serious action, to genuine emotion and even romance.
A running gag on the varied meanings and usage of the f-bomb is hit on just enough. And while De Niro and Pfeiffer make their way through the story's paces well enough, it's actually "Glee's" Agron who makes a surprising impression, sliding from the innocent ingénue to manipulative murderess with ease.
Throughout, Besson serves up red meat action with the sweet feel of a confectionary, making his fun, forgettable "The Family" both better than might be expected and still not much of anything at all.
MPAA rating: R for violence, language and brief sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: In wide releaseCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times