Giovanni Manzoni (Robert DeNiro) was once one of the most feared and respected mob bosses in New York. Times have certainly changed. For some unexplained reason Manzoni turned stoolie for the FBI and was moved into the Witness Relocation Program under the supervision of veteran agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones). Now he’s Fred Blake, a nondescript writer living in a small town in Normandy, France with his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), son Warren (John D’Leo), and daughter Bella (Dianna Agron). The family hates being so far removed from their familiar Brooklyn neighborhood and all of their friends and relatives, but they try to make the best of a lousy situation.
Their efforts don’t last though; unable to deal with the dual pressures of maintaining a false identity and the inquisitive, somewhat hostile townspeople, the Blakes soon revert to their old ways of violence and corruption, with Stansfield working desperately to keep them in line so their cover isn’t blown. Fred’s obsession with getting rid of the brown water that runs through the pipes of their quaint French home and Warren’s escalating criminal behavior at school eventually bring down the full wrath of Don Luchese (Stan Carp), the imprisoned rival Mafia boss Fred snitched on. The don dispatches a team of heavily armed assassins to Normandy to make the Blakes a blood-stained memory. Unable to depend on further protection from Stansfield and the other Feds, Fred and his family must show the mob back home that a simple name change doesn’t make the Blakes any less dangerous than before.
The past decade has found him becoming a one-man factory of empty-headed action flicks designed to make money and keep the masses entertained for a few hours. In the past fifteen years alone he has written and produced (and occasionally directed) the likes of Kiss of the Dragon, the Transporter series, Guy Ritchie’s much-maligned intellectual gangster epic Revolver, the surprise 2009 hit Taken (and its sequel), and too many toss-off movies involving assassins, explosions, and pointless chases. Besson was now more a brand than a filmmaker.
So anyone could be forgiven for harboring low expectations about his latest film, The Family. Despite having the one and only Martin Scorsese on board as an executive producer and first-rate source material in the form of Tonino Benacquista‘s critically acclaimed novel Malavita to adapt, I couldn’t help but begin my first viewing of this feature with severe trepidation that the entire thing might turn out to be an imminently forgettable waste of time. To be honest, folks, I do love to be proven wrong from time to time.
The Family is a cracking good film with nothing in its heart but the desire to entertain without insulting your intelligence too much. Besson’s best films were not ruled by balletic displays of bloodshed set to an atmospheric soundtrack (usually composed by the great Eric Serra, who has been replaced here by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine, whose previous credits include last year’s Cannes Film Festival award-winner The Past); they had visual flamboyance to spare but they also took the time to establish their characters as flawed but sympathetic individuals who would rather avoid violent conflict than dive headlong into a relentless assault of hot lead and cold fury.
Besson partnered up with Michael Caleo, a former writer and story editor on The Sopranos (one of The Family‘s closest spiritual successors), to adapt Benacquista’s novel for the screen. They choose not to have their characters wallow in mob movie cliches, but the time-honored tropes of the genre are present in brief flashes: the bizarre Mafia wife hairdos, the mouth-watering Italian meals, the hitmen who stop in the middle of a job to argue with each other, and so on.
The majority of The Family is spent setting up the characters in their predicament and allowing us time to get to know the Blakes. Fred decides to do away with the boredom of being a relocated witness against his old associates by writing a detailed memoir of his time in the Mafia on a rusty typewriter he discovers tossed into a pile of forgotten junk. Maggie seeks solace in cooking traditional meals for the family and friendship from the town’s friendly priest (Christopher Craig) and the two federal agents (Jimmy Palumbo and Domenick Lombardozzi) tasked with keeping the Blakes safe from a safe house across the street. Warren tries to fit into his new high school and gets beaten up by bullies for his trouble, so he uses the knowledge being the son of a mob boss can provide to build a little crime family of his own with some of his fellow bullies students. Belle falls in love with a college student who also serves as her math tutor.
This occupies a good two-thirds of the film’s running time and it all works because if we weren’t permitted to know who these people are and what makes them tick, then we wouldn’t be able to care less when the inevitable third act confrontation with Fred’s pissed-off Mafia pals from the States came and went.
The subplots are many and they all contribute to the even flow of the narrative, which never feels overstuffed with incidents. Brief bursts of violence are integrated throughout the story and are mostly treated like punchlines to the comedic build-up, but when the mob gunmen arrive in the last half-hour The Family becomes a pretty tense affair that still manages to wrap up the majority of loose ends in grand, bloody style. DeNiro has at this point in his career aged into an actor capable of playing leads and supporting roles with the same level of professionalism, and he’s really good as the beleaguered Fred. He has terrific chemistry with both Pfeiffer (in fine form as the Carmela of this displaced goombah clan) and the infrequently deployed Jones, the latter of whom brings every ounce of his trademark world-weary cynicism and stoic grace to a one-note character. D’Leo and Agron are excellent as the Blake youngsters, both struggling to survive high school in a foreign land far from everything they ever knew with a fierce determination that would make their father proud, and never degenerating into annoyance.
The Family is presented in a strong and vibrant MPEG-4 AVC-encoded high-definition transfer in shimmering 1080p resolution and framed in its original 2.39:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio. The picture quality is unsurprisingly clean and colorful for a recent major studio release and the Panavision-lensed cinematography is bereft of print defects and noticeable instances of damage.
The only audio option is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, but it performs its job superbly. Dialogue, music, and sound effects all mesh well in this robust sound mix with strong volume levels that never require manual adjustment. Audio distortion is non-existent. Solid work across the board. English and Spanish subtitles have also been provided.
Extra features are slim to say the least. The only feature of any substance is the featurette “Making The Family” (10 minutes), which gives us a brief behind-the-scenes look at the production with a small serving of on-set footage and interviews from Besson, DeNiro, Pfeiffer, Jones, and more. For some reason Fox has thrown in an even shorter supplement called “The Many Meanings of Fu**,” a compilation of the many uses of the F dash dash dash word from the film. A theatrical trailer and additional previews for Runner Runner, The Counselor, Graceland: Season 1, and The Americans: Season 1 (the latter four found under the Sneak Peek sub-menu) round out the disc-based extras. Trailers for Out of the Furnace, Paranoia, and Don Jon can also be viewed upfront when the Blu-ray loads. A DVD, digital copy, and Digital HD download redemption code are also included.
I went into The Family expecting another disposable Luc Besson action flick and was rewarded with a warm and sophisticated comic thriller that never skimps on the wit or bloodshed. The character work and performances are solid and never get overwhelmed by the exquisite action set-pieces. This is possibly the French filmmaker’s best feature since The Fifth Element.