A lot can be said for a good first act. It’s got to be tight—that is to say concisely well-written and not missing a beat, while at the same time rich and full of detail. It takes skill to pull it off, but when you do, you’ve got an audience captivated. They’re putty in your hands, and they’ll follow you almost anywhere…except into a crappy second act. If you’re going to put in a crappy second act, you might as well go back and re-write the awesomeness out of your beginning, because the extreme contrast is just going to piss off your audience—more so than if your film had simply been mediocre from the start.
Columbiana starts out in a perfunctorily bland manner. It is clear that some random bad guy is on the outs with his other random bad guy boss. They share a “friendly” drink, and then the subordinate departs. The subordinate nervously tells his men that they only have a short window to leave town. The boss tells a henchman to “take care of” the subordinate. This is a typical action set up and not really that exciting. The subordinate rushes home and has his wife and daughter, Cataleya at age 10 (Amandla Stenberg), start packing, but they run out of time when the house is surrounded by gunmen. There is a touching moment between Cataleya and her father (which was all in the casting), and then the house is stormed, and her parents are killed before her eyes. Regular, typical, blah—but then something magical happens. Before being shot down, Cataleya’s father had given her a computer chip, a business card, and an address scrawled on a scrap of paper with instructions on how to use these to get to safety. She narrowly escapes with her life as she aerobically ninjas her way away from the gunmen and through the crazy maze-streets of Columbia.
This chase sequence was amazing; its power to thrill reminded me of the first time I saw the opening chase from Casino Royale. Mixed with the intensity of this young actress, it was definitely a winning combo. On top of all that, Cataleya was still able to mentally maneuver her way out of the country and to the safety of her extended family in America. Aside from a few physical impossibilities (which come standard with most action films), this is a very solid beginning that really locks us into this story. But then the problems start—the dreaded crappy second act.
Of course, no one plans a crappy second act; they just seem to sort of happen. But there are key indicators that are easy to spot and should be fixed with the highest urgency before considering a story is complete. Even if that means starting from scratch on an entire act or two, it’ll be well worth the effort as they weren’t working in the first place. What are some of these clues? Well, if there are randomly thrown in subplots that have nothing to do with the initial set up, don’t further the action, don’t deepen the story, and are dropped half-way through the film—then that would be one hell of a clue then, wouldn’t it? Another blaring clue is unnecessary repetitiveness. No matter how cool something might be on its own, you’ve got to look at what it adds to the story as a whole as well. Let’s look to Columbiana to illustrate these two blaring clues.
Regarding repetitiveness, there is a kick-ass sequence that shows a grown up Cataleya (Zoe Saldana) orchestrating a very difficult hit with a seamless fluidity that lets the audience know that she is a master of her craft. While this is awesome to behold, it simply shows us what we’ve seen before. She’s a bad ass. But there is no lock-in here, and thus no stakes, and thus it is simply spectacle. Had this hit meant more or been the catalyst for some other action, then it would have heightened the stakes and been justified—but it didn’t, so it wasn’t.
Regarding random meaningless sub-plots, there are many scenes in which Cataleya is changing clothes, taking a shower, and getting sexy with her kind-of-a-boyfriend Danny (Michael Vartan). These scenes have nothing to do with the story; and while they’re nice to look at, they don’t further the plot and should have been axed or altered so that they did. The boyfriend is kept at arm’s length, and there is no risk with him because she’s content to keep him in the dark and willing to leave him if things get too close. And this is exactly what she does, which means we’ve wasted 20 to 30 minutes learning the ins and outs of this meaningless relationship for nothing.
It is also around this point where the film starts collapsing in on itself. Inconsistencies, cheesy tropes, obvious bone-headed moves—they come out in force in the last third of the film because all that time was wasted on a sub-plot that didn’t add anything. That time should have been spent crafting a deepening of the story with a set of stakes and circumstances that waxed and waned into a grand culminating finale. Sadly, among all the half-naked smoochy stuff, there are a lot of random jumps in the plot that we are seemingly just expected to swallow, and then we just skip to the finale, which isn’t really that grand because we weren’t brought along for the journey.
This story really had potential, and it may even have met that potential only to have been over-produced into the dreck you see now. I recommend that the makers of this film go back and watch Kung Fu Panda to get a sense of how to build to a culmination with tight plotting and nuanced incorporations of sub-plot. And I recommend that you skip this thing unless all you want to see is action sequences and glimpses of Saldana’s body.