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The lighthearted Wasabi offers real kicks

While The Transporter had a bigger budget and way more hype, Wasabi is handily the better of the two Luc Besson productions out this year. Unlike its big stepbrother, this nearly perfect confection never takes its action more seriously than its comedy.

Wasabi is also the best vehicle for the wonderful Jean Reno since his first major starring role nearly a decade ago in Besson's The Professional, a film whose central relationship Wasabi seems to gently mock. Reno plays Hubert Fiorentini, a Paris cop who's a cross between Dirty Harry and Mel Gibson's character in Signs. That is, at work he's tough and violent, but the moment the action slows down he's a melancholic dork, still bemoaning the loss of his one true love, Miko, whom he met while he was a secret agent in Japan.

Some 19 years earlier, we are told, Miko broke off with him and disappeared without explanation. And poor Hubert has never recovered. Even when he is aggressively propositioned by the gorgeous Sofia (Carole Bouquet, in a cameo), he can't get Miko out of his mind. He buries himself in work with a brutal dedication that tends to cause trouble with his superiors. Just as his exasperated boss is ordering him to take a long vacation, he is informed that Miko has died and that he has been named her sole legatee.

Jean Reno's French detective goes to Japan to pick up his inheritance. Little does he know it's a rebellious teenage daughter.
TriStar Pictures
Jean Reno's French detective goes to Japan to pick up his inheritance. Little does he know it's a rebellious teenage daughter.

Flying to Tokyo, he soon learns just what his inheritance consists of: Yumi (Ryoko Hirosue), the rebellious, punkish daughter Miko never told him about, who is just a day and a half shy of her 18th birthday. It's Miko's last wish that Hubert look after her, at least until her birthday, when she will come of age.

It's not long before Hubert discovers that the task is a bit harder than it first appears. Not only does he find it impossible to tell Yumi that he is her father, but he has to entertain her -- and keep her in the dark -- while fending off a band of yakuza thugs intent on kidnapping or harming her. His only ally in all this is his former comrade Momo (Michel Muller), a sawed-off dweeb whose enthusiasm far outstrips his competence.

There is nothing strikingly new about the underlying concept of the story: It's the kind of tough-guy-goes-sentimental hook that Damon Runyon built and exploited over and over again in his 1930s gangster stories. And in fact, the more the plot becomes specific, the less sense it makes, but it would be churlish to complain about such details in a film that whips by so quickly and enjoyably.

Besson wrote and produced the film, but turned the project over to director Gérard Krawczyk, who has a much lighter touch. The jokes are far broader here than they were in Besson's The Fifth Element, which remains his least "serious" film. The humor occasionally even verges on a Young Frankenstein/ Airplane! level of reality, with broad soundtrack music gags and action that violates every law of physics. (And it's hard to completely ignore the fact that in Wasabi's Japan, practically everyone seems to speak French.) Were the basic tone of the film more realistic, these breaches would cause big problems. But even at its most earnest, Wasabi is so artificial that they only contribute to the merriment.

In and around his movies about tough kick-ass babes -- both his awful Joan of Arc epic, The Messenger, and his seminal La Femme Nikita -- Besson has used this "tough guy becomes awkward protector of lovable female" plot at least twice before, in The Professional and The Fifth Element. The central difference this time is that, outside of some fleeting moments of humorous awkwardness, the sexual/romantic component -- which made some viewers of The Professional uneasy -- has been stripped out.

This may be Krawczyk's first film to get a decent release in the States. Back in the '80s, he made the amusing I Hate Actors!, a droll black-and-white pastiche of '40s Hollywood B movies (based on an ancient and nearly unknown Ben Hecht novel). He seems to have been relatively inactive after that until Besson, as writer-producer, hired him to direct two sequels to the international 1998 hit Taxi. (None of the Taxi films has yet been distributed in the States.)

Despite Besson's high-profile name being Wasabi's big selling point, there is no doubt that Krawczyk deserves a huge amount of the credit for the film's thoroughly winning tone. He gets delightful performances from all three of the principal players, and manages to put together some action scenes that are straight out of the Hong Kong comedy/action tradition.

 
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