A little girl gazes intently into her father’s eyes. “Escúchame,” he says, adding that she was named for an orchid and must never forget where she came from and oh yes, this little chip full of data will be her “passport” to America. They’re in Bogotá, that is, a fantasy space full of yellow light, crooked hillside rooftops and evil drug runners: the latter are on their way to kill dad (Jesse Borrego), which you already know as he instructs nine-year-old Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg). Just moments later, she’s still seated at the kitchen table, only this time facing her father’s murderer, Marco (Jordi Mollà). She looks at him intently too, before she surprises him with a brutal move her father must have taught her.
The scene at the table might remind you of another, where a 12-year-old Natalie Portman sits across from Léon (Jean Reno), also taking instruction (in 1994’s The Professional). In both instances, the girls face horrors they shouldn’t have to, and in both, they respond by seeking vengeance—nonsensical and perverse and stunningly violent. Though Luc Besson didn’t direct Colombiana, his fingerprints are all over it (see also: Nikita, The Messenger, The Fifth Element), meaning this: a waifish girl will be the ruin of many cocky men.
As formulas go, it’s awfully basic. In Colombiana, it’s reduced to a few broad strokes. Cataleya has preternatural skills, whether Parkour as a child or, when she’s an adult played by Zoe Saldana, her survival and hunting instincts are augmented by knowledge of martial arts, weapons, and all manner of high technologies when she’s an adult. She looks awesome, whether wearing her schoolgirl uniform or dressed up like a hooker in black bra and gold platform heels or a catsuit, or even when she strips all to climb into the lap of her sex-only boyfriend, Danny (Michael Vartan). And she’s loony, whether dancing by herself or sad in her shower or so getting desperate to avenge her parents that she’s willing to risk everything, including her uncle, Emilio (Cliff Curtis), and his mama (Ofelia Medina), who take her in as a child when she does indeed make it to Chicago.
Cataleya embodies familiar tensions, between deadly precision and fanatical wildness, tenderness and cruelty. Angry, paranoid, and tenacious, not to mention movie-magically able to outthink and out maneuver every opponent, she’s also lithe and feline, prone to running around in her underwear or short shorts, and an ace shot. It’s certainly not smart of her to leave a telltale lipsticked orchid on her victims’ chests. By the time the FBI, in the form of Special Agent Ross (Lennie James), starts to put together that an unidentified Tag Killer has left behind 22 such corpses, she’s arguing with her tio about making herself a target.
Sworn to protect her, Emilio is unhappy with her choices (“You have to learn how the world works,” he says, by way of urging her to attend elementary school), even though he agrees to train her and then hires her as a contract killer. Once she’s working, he’s more emphatic, arguing with her in a couple of those not-very-secretive encounters that contractors have with their employers in films like these. When first meet in a library or a laundromat, they pretend not to look at each other, but by the end of the exchange, their emotions overtake them, they’re fierce or tearful and trying hard not to attract attention in a space that is conveniently empty except for them.
Cataleya’s own emotional problems aside, the film offers an array of increasingly hysterical men who mean to capture or exterminate her, from the earnest feds to the corrupt CIA to the wretched drug dealers. Whether they carry huge weapons or oversized guts, all the bad guys are stupid, shooting indiscriminately, flouncing about with bimbos, whimpering when they’re afraid—obviously deserving all the mayhem dumped on them.
Even the ostensibly decent men who aren’t related to her (Ross and Danny) are so overwhelmed her mere presence that they behave like idiots. Ross wants to save her from herself but can’t quite endorse this vigilante thing, and Danny, well, he’s sort of fallen in love with this dream girl (who shows up at his painter’s loft, engages in slinky sex, then disappears before morning), and can’t help but press for more, like, a conversation.
Such efforts to tame her are banal and doomed, of course, effectively goading viewers to anticipate the next action scene, and hope that this silly boy will never get what he wants. Cataleya is a killer. She remembers, as her father hoped, where she came from. That’s not Colombia, as some Colombians might worry. That’s a movie formula, where her weapons and costumes define her.
Still, Cataleya does offer a rudimentary self-description: she’s wanted to be a killer from the moment she lost her father, or so she tells Emilio. He, in turn, seems briefly to intuit that, in fact, what she calls “my choice” is a sign of her pathology, a function of loss and rage, unhealthy. If only she could have kept it together and just completed her professional contracts, without all that personal clutter. But Emilio’s a character in her movie, so his understanding of what she’s doing is limited by definition. You, on the other hand, know better. Sometimes clever (the fight in the bathroom recalls Steven Seagal’s in the kitchen, in Hard to Kill, with regard to weaponizing what’s on hand) and sometimes just stupid, Colombiana isn’t interested in Cataleya’s backstory.