Starring : Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo

Director : Luc Besson

Release Date : 19 Sep 2013

This black comedy about a Mafia family on the run is full of star power and sheer, unmitigated gall.

PEOPLE get hit in the face a lot in this film – bone-crunching, cartilage-destroying, that-sounded-so-painful-it-has­-to-hurt blows. And that’s just by Belle, the sweet teenage daughter of the “Blake” family, played by Glee’s Dianna Agron.

Mum Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) blows up a minimarket when the owner and his snotty customers scoff at her “American-ness”.

Son Warren (John D’Leo) takes a beating from the school bullies on his first day, but soon establishes himself as the kingpin of the student underworld and exacts painful revenge on his attackers.

And Blake patriarch Fred (Robert De Niro) sends an overcharging plumber to the hospital with multiple fractures and broken bones in his legs.

Excessive? Devil-spawned? The Manson family reborn? All of the above, maybe. The Blakes aren’t really the Blakes, however; they are the Manzonis, a displaced family unit that has been in the federal witness protection programme ever since Fred/Giovanni ratted on his former associates in the Mafia.

Forced to relocate several times by their own inability to integrate wherever the Feds have placed them, the family has most recently been moved to a small town in Normandy, France.

Painful, ugly deaths are waiting for them should the larger Family find out where they are, and you can safely put money on that discovery being made sometime during the course of the film, through a wildly improbable string of coincidences. Count, also, on a violent finale that clearly doesn’t give a crap about collateral damage.

Now, it’s a bit challenging to sit through this one, because the Blakes/Manzonis are both repulsive in their take-no-prisoners approach to life ... and yet, strangely sympathetic in a way.

There’s no way anyone could ever take this seriously, but Malavita (also known as The Family) does have a kind of appeal to it if you keep reminding yourself that it’s a twisted black comedy.

Luc Besson directs in a tone that careers wildly from dark farce to violent gangster flick to soppy/sappy teen romance, and the end result is a somewhat obliquely told tale; the tone and pace never really gain any kind of urgency, though it doesn’t get dull at all.

When it was all over, I felt pretty much like I did after The Fifth Element and The Messenger, my attention held by the storytelling but my brain a little confused about what the filmmaker was getting at.

Sometimes, Besson goes overboard and in doing so, undermines the capabilities of his own star. From all the roles in his stellar resume, De Niro is the sort of actor who can just squint at the camera and you half-expect a sudden outburst of violence to follow ... or maybe nothing. It’s that kind of volatility, the unpredictable danger that could explode at any moment, that keeps the guy so watchable.

On numerous occasions in the film, Fred engages in little fantasies where he acts out the violent impulses in his head, like shoving hot coals in the mouth of a mocking neighbour, or slamming the condescending town mayor’s fingers in a drawer. Come on, we don’t need such flights of fancy, not when De Niro is capable of conveying all the murderous intent that’s building up inside with a simple grimace or twitch of the cheek, or even not having any discernible expression at all.

Probably the most character-defining moment for Fred comes close to the violent climax, when he simply stares at a stream of brown water coming out of the kitchen tap – the focus of a bizarre subplot that is probably there solely to show us how single-minded and relentless he can be. We really could have done without all that cartoonish excess, Luc.

One thing I did like was how Pfeiffer, De Niro, Agron and D’Leo came across rather well as a family unit; against all odds, when the Blakes should be dysfunctional as the Lannisters, they actually convince as a caring and devoted family.

And it’s also interesting (and just a little heartwarming) to see how the family’s FBI minders have become quite attached to the family they’ve been observing all these years, appreciative of the mother’s great cooking and concerned about the daughter’s emotional entanglements.

Such little touches make Malavita rise above the quirks of its director and the over-the-top behaviour of its main characters. As much as the film pokes fun at the French putting cream in everything (really?), this one isn’t quite up there with the cream of the crop of gangster flicks, serious or farcical. Yet its star power and sheer gall of challenging us to root for such reprehensible types make this an offer we almost can’t refuse.

Director: Luc Besson

Cast: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo

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