When Angels Become Demons (Passion and Profession): Zoe Saldana in the international action-thriller film Colombiana, written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, and directed by Olivier Megaton

By Daniel Garrett

Colombiana, directed by Olivier Megaton
Starring Zoe Saldana, Jordi Molla, Lennie James
TriStar Pictures and Stage 6 Films, 2011

What is the relationship of passion to professionalism? Passion can inspire profession, giving a woman or man the energy and focus to gather knowledge and master a discipline and skill; however, the obsessive commitment of emotion at the core of passion can weaken the foundation of the dedication and discipline expected of the professional person. With a combination of girlishness, intelligence, sadness, sensuality and vengeful determination, Zoe Saldana plays Cataleya in the cool and colorful film Colombiana, written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen: Cataleya is a hired assassin intent on finding and killing those men who are responsible for murdering her parents before her eyes. Her passion has inspired her profession and made her vulnerable within it, as she signs her kills with a drawing of the flower for which she was named, asserting her triumph, taking responsibility and forming a web of connection that others—committed policemen and angry criminals—can track. Zoe Saldana, a woman of dark gold beauty, is easy to watch and like, but is her character—a killer of bad men—any kind of hero?

In South America, Cataleya was a bright-eyed little girl when her father decided to leave the employ of a crime king, who decides to kill her father and retrieve evidence of the sinister master’s criminality—and the king’s men shoot down the little girl’s father and mother at the family’s apartment, as Cataleya sits quietly at a table. The little girl Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg) stabs the man who oversaw the killing and questions her about the compact records her father may have left; she stabs him, flees, and finds her way to an American embassy, from which she makes her way to Chicago, where her uncle (Cliff Curtis) puts her in school, and teaches her how to kill. Cataleya is an expert as an adult, a woman of great cunning, imagination, and speed (Zoe Saldana), able to manage men, animals, and technology, able to create scenarios and use science to catch and kill her prey, but what kind of life can a killer of men have? The secretive Cataleya, who has a gift for drawing, meets a young male painter (Michael Vartan) with whom she has a satisfying sexual life, but he calls her Jennifer and knows nothing significant about her, not even her real name. Cataleya, who licks lollipops and gives her lover a stuffed animal, does not want to speak of her pain but she, wounded in childhood, has been living within that pain for years.

Mythologies are born and die in every era. An individual’s look, personality, and values can make her or him a vivid character, and if representative—significant for how that character moves through society, an embodiment of impulse and thought—she or he can become an idol of the people. Characters and stories are easily transmitted into myth when they represent heroic ideas and impulses that have found grounding and reward in the world. Women in the world and in film have been loved for being more than doing, but there are women—in cinema, the characters played by actors Bette Davis and Joan Crawford through Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep, as well as Tamara Dobson, Pam Grier, Geena Davis and Angelina Jolie—who have liberated themselves from tradition and law to pursue their own amoral prerogatives, achieving differing levels of respect and success.

In director Olivier Megaton’s Colombiana, a film of craziness, logic, and style, with international scenes of glamorous and gritty locations and lush landscapes, both justice officers and criminals have codes of ethics. Cataleya’s uncle tells her that she must get a basic traditional education before she can become the killer she wants to be, then tells her that her insistence on blatant vengeance is not professional. How have other films portrayed professionalism? Films of cosmopolitan vision in which brain and body with technology are weapons, were preceded by frontier western films that illustrated the meeting of civilization and wilderness, and man’s attempt to prevail over nature and himself. In Howard Hawks’ western film Rio Bravo (1959), a film full of brown wood, gold light, and tanned leather, the sheriff John Wayne plays has as his deputies an old cripple (Walter Brennan) and a recently reformed drunk (Dean Martin, in a felt, truthful performance) and a bright, charming young man who is great with a gun (Ricky Nelson), men who have proved they can be depended on to do their jobs, men who might be said to illustrate the different stages of a man’s life, men who form a chosen fraternity and an accidental family, but the sheriff refuses the help of people who are not professional—disciplined, experienced, and principled—and that film was said to be a disapproving response to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), the western starring Gary Cooper as a sheriff who tries to find almost anyone in his frightened town to help him when he knows that trouble is coming. Yet, those films—Rio Bravo and High Noon—are about men, white men, and about lawmen: the tradition is harder to read when it comes to social transgressors, no matter what they claim their code to be: it is easy for one violation to lead to other violations.

In her Lara Croft movies, Angelina Jolie is a wealthy adventurer who turns her curiosity into a vocation, and in A Mighty Heart Jolie is a journalist who uses her investigative skills to help track her kidnapped husband in Pakistan, but in Salt Jolie is a Russian girl reared to be a double agent in western intelligence services, a woman who rebels violently against her Russian master after her beloved American husband is killed; and in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s mini-series Luther, Idris Elba is the handsome black giant John Luther, a brilliant, volatile detective whose temperament and methods skirt the lawless instinct and practice he exists to defeat, the ambiguity and conflicts demonstrating more rather than less humanity. Zoe Saldana has appeared in comedy, drama, and science fiction, but her role as a tormented, driven young woman in Olivier Megaton’s Colombiana may be her most dynamic, her freest; and it is an irony that her freedom is exemplified by her astute control. While watching a woman go wild and do forbidden things can be an exhilarating fantasy, when her actions involve crimes that injure others, that is hardly a model for imitation. Yet, it is amazing, really quite brilliant, that Zoe Saldana’s Cataleya is not repellent: Cataleya, a master of disguise and planning and an able gunslinger who eats take-out food and listens to mood music that gives despair the intoxicating sexiness of desire, could have become an artist, a journalist, a lawyer, or a social activist, but she has been living for revenge, and looks overwhelmed—shattered but silent—when her lover asks her to tell him something about herself, and Cataleya cries after her uncle shoves a photograph of her parents into her hands. One can admire the actress and even her character but that admiration is likely to be limited, qualified by all sorts of reservations; and that may explain why such anti-heroines, no matter how dazzlingly efficient and seductive, do not enter the exalted realm of the heroic, the ideal. Of course, another problem may be that some people are just not ready to see a sleek, slim brown girl kick a whole lot of pale, male ass.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana, a graduate of the New School for Social Research in New York, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.