Columbia TriStar DVD cover of SUBWAY

French language. France, 1985. Rated R. 103 minutes.

Cast: Christopher Lambert, Isabelle Adjani, Richard Bohringer, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Michel Galabru, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Jean Bouise, Jean Réno
Writers: Luc Besson, Pierre Jolivet, Alain Le Henry, Marc Perrier, Sophie Schmit
Original Music: Eric Serra
Cinematography: Carlo Varini
Producers: Luc Besson, François Ruggieri
Director: Luc Besson


Grade: D+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

I n 1985, the French Academy of Cinema deemed Luc Besson's Subway worthy of three Cesars for actor Christopher Lambert, production design, and sound. Today, it is difficult in the extreme to determine exactly what they saw. Few films have aged as poorly as this one. The music, the hair, the clothes, the annoying electronic score, the lame humor—Subway is in all ways a product of the 1980s.

Saturated in dated attitude and style, Subway is a meandering film without a point. The plot, what there is of one, should be explained, because the film can't be bothered. Safecracker Fred (Christopher Lambert sporting spiky bleached hair that looks ridiculous on him) attends a birthday party for upper-class Helena (Isabelle Adjani), where he steals a file of indeterminate but definitely important documents. In the opening segment, we meet Fred as he flees from his pursuers via car and laughs in that aggressively fake bark that Lambert has developed into a trademark. Then Fred and the film go literally underground into the Paris subway system, where Fred becomes some sort of tragic figure, and forms a band, and miscellaneous other things.

In no particular order, the following things transpire: 1) Fred hides from armed men apparently in the employ of Helena 's husband; 2) Fred eludes slow-witted and slow-footed policemen wearing those silly cylindrical French policemen hats; 3) Fred and Helena, who unlike the others has no trouble finding Fred, exhibit some sort of attraction to one another, and we learn that they have some sort of pre-existing relationship; 4) Oddball denizens of the subway system take Fred in, including an unethical flower vendor (Richard Bohringer), a bodybuilder (Christan Gomba), a roller-skating purse snatcher (Jean-Hughes Anglade), and several musicians (Jean Réno, et al.); 5) The musicians play terrible sounds that were evidently considered music in 1985.

Subway original DVD cover
The version to avoid: United American Video DVD release of Subway.

All of which makes exactly as much sense as it sounds.

What makes even less sense is Subway 's commercial (at least in France) and critical success. The film is best described as a fanciful satire, as the labyrinthine subway system and its inhabitants no doubt represent the unfortunate by-products of our inequitable and often absurd social systems. Yet the precise ideas governing the film remain elusive. To be sure, as a tongue-in-cheek fantasy, the film is not meant to be taken seriously, but if Subway is supposed to be funny, then the jokes are as flat-footed as the policemen. And if it's not meant to be serious, why the ostentatiously affected ending?

Besson scored successes with La Femme Nikita and Leon (aka The Professional), but those films are proving to be the exceptions in his filmography, not the rule. Though possessing visual flair and an eye for action sequences, Besson is an haphazard filmmaker unsure of his story structure or his meaning, as The Big Blue, The Fifth Element, and The Messenger attest. Subway is in the same mold, where substance matters less than style. As Besson's second feature and one of the movies responsible for launching Lambert's career, diehard fans of either man will find something of interest in Subway. So will ‘80s culture junkies and anyone curious to see Réno with hair on his head. Otherwise, Subway is a relic of the ‘80s best forgotten.

Note: The first U.S. DVD release (from United American Video) of Subway has ghastly picture and sound quality. Worst of all, the film is dubbed into English, which, due to the substandard sound, doesn't render the dialogue any more comprehensible. However, Subway was re-released on DVD by Columbia TriStar in 2001, featuring a remastered widescreen version in the original French, with subtitles, and also with the crappy dubbed version for anyone nutty enough to prefer it. Both versions are still available from Amazon and other retailers. It's easy to tell the difference between the two releases. The new one has Lambert on the cover with blond hair and holding a flourescent light. The old one—the one to avoid—has Lambert on the cover with dark hair, which is not how he looks in the movie.

Review © December 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Columbia TriStar and United American Video. All Rights Reserved.

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