Quite by chance, I am in the midst of watching a Milla Jovovich double-feature, consisting of her back-to-back 2010 efforts Resident Evil: Afterlife and Stone; in fact, I didn’t even know she was in the latter when I taped it, having only a one-line description and the names of its leading men, Robert De Niro and Edward Burns. This will be neither a review of those two films per se nor a detailed rundown of her career, but rather a brief celebration. And yes, I’m aware that—as with my post on Das Boot (1981)—although I couldn’t resist it, my title is something of a cheat, since La Jovovich apparently pronounces her first name to rhyme not with “vanilla” (as my Sigourney Weaveresque mentor at Trinity College, the great Professor Milla Riggio, did) but with “tortilla.”
Unsurprisingly, Milla is best known through her work with two filmmakers for whom she served as both muse and mate, writer-directors Luc Besson (some of whose efforts I greatly admire) and Paul W.S. Anderson (not so much). Besson gave her both her breakthrough, as the flame-tressed object of the exercise in his delirious SF oddity The Fifth Element (1997), and the to-die-for title role in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999). Milla’s pre-Besson oeuvre is an eclectic array of television and such features as exploitation-maestro Zalman King’s Two Moon Junction (1988), Return to the Blue Lagoon (1991), Richard Attenborough’s biopic Chaplin (1992)—each of which I have yet to see—and Richard Linklater’s ode to slackers, Dazed and Confused (1993).
Despite a reflexive aversion to films based on video games, I recommended Anderson’s Resident Evil (2002) to my zombie-fan friends, who rejected it because it lacked the gut-munching gore of a George A. Romero or Lucio Fulci. After serving only as a writer-producer on the first sequels, Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) and …Extinction (2007), PWSA reclaimed the megaphone for …Afterlife, and has another, …Retribution, in pre-production. While some effort has been made to differentiate the entries, as was done much more successfully in the Alien franchise, the series has undergone a steady and perhaps inevitable decline, although I would not lay this at the feet of Milla, whose character of Alice forms the connecting link and epitomizes the ass-kicking female.
This persona, originated with Besson, was no doubt responsible for Milla’s casting in Ultraviolet (2006), reportedly written by director Kurt Wimmer with her in mind, but the result, if not a total waste of time (as no film with Milla kicking butt could be in this writer’s opinion), is generic and superfluous. Alas, the same is increasingly true of the Resident Evil movies with their huge slabs of largely plot-free action scenes, thus making Jovovich the only reason to watch them. Luckily, Milla has managed to diversify with an enviable variety of projects, following The Fifth Element with a film for writer-director Spike Lee, He Got Game (1998), and The Messenger with one for BOF favorite Wim Wenders, The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), co-written by Bono of U2 fame.
I have yet to see Milla in the Thomas Hardy adaptation The Claim (2000) or the spoof Zoolander (2001), which would seem to exemplify her range even further. But I found her delightful in her next effort, Dummy (2002), with Adrien Brody as Steven, a young man whose social skills are so stunted that he communicates largely through a ventriloquist dummy, and has a decidedly rocky relationship with his love object and unemployment counselor, Lorena (Vera Farmiga). Milla is hilarious as his friend Fangora, who is so desperate to get a gig for her punk-rock band that when she learns his sister, Heidi (the always awesome Illeana Douglas), needs a klezmer combo for the wedding she is planning, she assures Heidi that is her specialty, despite having no idea what it is.
A side note on Farmiga, who was profiled by Time for her recent directorial debut, Higher Ground, and had appeared opposite George Clooney in Up in the Air (2009), which I am eager to catch. Recognizing her face, I looked her up on the IMDb, but at the time, the only film I specifically remembered her from was Dummy, although I discovered that I had seen and then forgotten her (sorry, Vera) in 15 Minutes (2001), Jonathan Demme’s underrated remake The Manchurian Candidate (2004), and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008). Only later, having forgotten the somewhat nondescript title, did I realize that she had also impressed me as the Valerie Plame character in Nothing But the Truth (2008), which fictionalizes the case and gives it a devastating final twist.
Stone depicts the interrelationships among parole officer Jack Mabry (De Niro), inmate Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Burns), and their respective spouses, Madylyn (Frances Conroy) and Lucetta (Jovovich). Convicted of setting the fire that consumed his grandparents, who were killed by a fellow addict, Stone uses his hot-blooded wife to try to influence Jack in his favor, and although the story lacks a satisfying climax or resolution, its intent may be simply to show lives spiraling out of control. Like De Niro, Milla gets a welcome opportunity to do a little acting for a change; meanwhile, I see that Anderson has cast her as the villainous M’Lady De Winter in this year’s umpteenth version of The Three Musketeers, so now I suppose I’ll have to watch that one, too…