Under the Radar: Movies You May Have Missed—Colombiana

I can still remember the first time I saw the trailer for Colombiana.

I can't remember the movie I was actually in the theater to see at the time, strangely enough, but I remember that trailer: the frenetic cuts, the percussive beats of the action and dialogue, the indelible image of Zoe Saldana in that skin-tight, matte black catsuit. I'm a sucker for a well-edited action trailer, and this one was, as Tony the Tiger would say, grrrreat.

But then, somehow, I missed it during its initial run. Perhaps I was too busy at the time, or maybe the local release was just an abbreviated one. Whatever the reason, I didn't get a chance to see Colombiana until this year, reminded of its existence by a friend with likeminded tastes.

“How have you not seen it yet? If this movie was starring Liam Neeson, everyone and their grandmother would be talking about it by now.”

And boy, ain't that the truth. I can't help but suspect that part of the reason Colombiana is such an unknown, underrated gem is because it features a biracial woman as the lead. If this was an Angelina Jolie movie, it would be known. If this was starring a white man, it would be spoken of just as fondly, memed just as extensively, as Taken—which, incidentally, was also written by the same guys.

Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg as a child, Zoe Saldana as an adult) is irrevocably changed when she watches her parents die, gunned down by a mob boss' enforcers, men led by Marco (Jordi Molla). Escaping their bloody fate, she flees from Bogotá, Colombia to Chicago, where she seeks out her uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis), an underworld heavy in his own right.

Fast-forward fifteen years and Cataleya has achieved at least part of her goal: she's become a professional killer. Equipped with all of the skills she needs to enact her long-delayed revenge, she uses the bodies of her targets to send a message to Don Luis (Beto Benites). But her dangerous career has also garnered the attention of the FBI, lead by Agent Ross (Lennie James)—and Don Luis, now in America, is being sheltered by the CIA.

What ever is a girl to do? Load up on machine guns, explosives, and well-trained attack dogs, of course. In true action film tradition, it all culminates in a vicious, unmerciful, no-holds-barred last stand with a very high body count.

And a rocket launcher.

You know you've made the right decision with your movie choice when Zoe Saldana gets to use a rocket launcher.

Screenwriter (and director—though he wasn't behind the camera this time) Luc Besson knows how to write action films with powerful female leads; just look at The Fifth Element and Leon: The Professional.

In fact, Colombiana is, in a lot of ways, an alternate universe continuation of Leon—just swap Zoe Saldana for Natalie Portman and voila! You can definitely see what would have happened to Matilda if she'd followed through with her choice to become a vengeance-fueled hitwoman.

So many action flicks feature burly, muscular men on a mission for justice following the tragic death of their partner/wife/parent/child/beloved dog. Flipping the tables and giving this story to a woman is a nice change of pace, and it adds some interesting gender dynamics you wouldn't have with a male lead.

At one point in the film, Agent Ross dismisses Cataleya as a suspect because “this can't be the work of a woman.” There's a scene with her painter love interest, Danny (Michael Vartan, looking really nice with a bunch of tattoos), where he begs her to open up and tell him something about herself—she can only shake her head with a rueful, pained smile. It's honestly amazing seeing a woman get to be angsty and mysterious, while the man is the more emotional, touchy-feely character.

And, in the climactic showdown, the powerful, intimidating, masculine mob boss is literally quaking in terror because Cataleya is in his house. A slim, beautiful young woman reduces a man to sheer panic—and it's so satisfying.

Colombiana's success rides largely on its leads: Saldana and Amandla Stenberg as the ten-year-old Cataleya. They're both magnetic on screen—particularly Stenberg, who also wowed as the ill-fated Rue in The Hunger Games. Both actresses have a talent for conveying everything with their eyes; half the time, the dialogue is wholly unnecessary.

When Cataleya watches her parents die, frozen at the kitchen table in her prim school uniform, the pain in her eyes makes your gut clench. And when she escapes moments later, it's hard not to stand up and cheer for her courage. From her very first scene, it's clear that this is a girl who knows how to survive and will be tireless in the pursuit of her goals.

Zoe Saldana is also one of the most accomplished female action stars to make a mark in recent years. She's so good at the fight choreography and weapons play that you're wholly convinced she's dangerous, regardless of her slim dancer's physique and pretty face.

And it's nice to see her get a chance to play a Latina character, given she's half-Latina; it's a problem Gina Torres—another incredibly talented biracial action actress—has also faced for years, where Hollywood is quick to offer African-American roles based purely on appearances while neglecting the other side of their backgrounds.

Colombiana isn't a film for the faint of heart or squeamish. It's brutal and bloody and hardly glamorizes the criminal underworld. But it's also beautiful in its locales and action choreography, with some superb directing from Olivier Megaton and knock-out performances from an eclectic, international cast—there are only three white actors in the top-billed cast.

Plus, you get to spend two hours watching ladies kick ass and take names, so what's even stopping you?


If you like: Revenge stories a la Leon: The Professional and Taken.

Why you should watch it: Because it's unfortunately a rare situation where the angst-driven assassin is a lady.

Favorite moment(s): Ten-year-old Cataleya's frenetic escape through the alleys of Bogotá.


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.


  1. Lauren Scheier

    Such a great movie!

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