When the laid-back 23d-century New York City cabdriver meets the orange-haired, genetically engineered punk babe in ''The Fifth Element,'' they cannot communicate directly because they don't speak the same language. But there is one shared phrase they understand: ''Big badda-boom.'' Well, who doesn't grasp that concept at the start of the summer blockbuster sweepstakes? Flash, gimmicks, special effects and noisy pyrotechnics are so pervasive that they've even reached France.
As directed by Luc Besson, whose ''La Femme Nikita'' hit a high-water mark for chic sensationalism, ''The Fifth Element'' is a big-budget French effort to play the Hollywood cartoon blockbuster game. It's also proof that Mr. Besson, whose big ambitions and technological expertise have made him one of France's highest-profile younger directors, is also his nation's worst nightmare. Co-opted by international comic book style, Mr. Besson pitches this gaudy epic at a teen-age audience that values hot design over plot coherence, hollow excitement over reason. The story describes a mission to save humanity, but as far as the film itself is concerned, it's already gone.
Bruce Willis, a gratifying cool presence, does give this madly fanciful film some much-needed ballast. He brings sly panache to the role of Korben Dallas, reluctant action hero, who becomes embroiled in a plot that few sane viewers will even try to understand. (''It's 'Star Wars' on acid!'' Gary Oldman, who plays Zorg, the film's mega-hammy villain, has said about the story.) Lulled out of his torpor into a spectacular rescue mission, Mr. Willis has a role he could play in his sleep. But he handles it with muscular intensity and droll, sardonic energy instead.
Now pay attention: It seems that in 1914, apparently during outtakes of a ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' installment, evil aliens arrived in Egypt to fulfill a mission prophesied by ancient carvings. The aliens looked like half-hubcaps with tiny insect heads, and that was not even the worst thing about them. They invoked the threat of pure evil, and it has to be fended off 300 years later by a nymphet named Leeloo. She is a supreme being who arrives on earth in the form of a naked fashion model.
Leeloo is girded for battle in the costumes of Jean-Paul Gaultier, who outdid himself in dreaming up strappy kinkwear for even the film's minor characters. If Mr. Gaultier is to be believed -- and he's as credible as anything else here -- white could be a big new color in bondage regalia, and even airline employees of the future will be ready for streetwalking without skipping a beat.
Korben spends his working hours driving a space taxi through a three-dimensional New York. (Among the film's quaintly European touches is a title identifying one setting as ''South Brooklyn.'') Elaborate but murky special effects give these scenes a geometric look, though the film's inventive design team has the chance to be more playful with smaller settings, like Korben's grungy cubicle of an apartment.
Anyway, once Korben and Leeloo join forces, the action heads off in wild directions. It winds up at a lavish resort where everything is crowded, security is tight, and a gala black-tie evening is on the agenda. That setting made perfect sense when ''The Fifth Element'' opened this year's Cannes International Film Festival on Wednesday. (It opens in the United States on Friday.)
Mr. Besson directs with ceaseless flamboyance and with an obvious enthusiasm for his film's comic book conceits. But the tone of ''The Fifth Element'' is often terribly shrill, especially when attention shifts to grating minor characters.
Ian Holm, who plays a priest with bemused vitality, shares Mr. Willis's way of injecting a touch of reality, but the rest of the cast strives for surreal degrees of silliness. As a yammering, swishy talk show host, Chris Tucker is flat-out incomprehensible, while Mr. Oldman preens evilly enough to leave tooth marks on the scenery. Milla Jovovich, as Leeloo, demonstrates the merits of flame-colored hair with blond roots. But she leaves serious doubts about whether models will ever save the world.
''The Fifth Element'' does look genuinely novel at times, thanks to the pulp exuberance of its electric colors and bold, jokey production design. It delivers that big badda-boom and nothing more.
''The Fifth Element'' is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It includes mild violence, partial nudity and strong visual suggestiveness in its overall design.
THE FIFTH ELEMENT
Directed by Luc Besson; written by Mr. Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, based on a story by Mr. Besson; director of photography, Thierry Arbogast; edited by Sylvie Landra; music by Eric Serra; costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier; production designer, Dan Weil; produced by Patrice Ledoux; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 105 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.
WITH: Bruce Willis (Korben Dallas), Gary Oldman (Zorg), Ian Holm (Cornelius), Milla Jovovich (Leeloo) and Chris Tucker (Ruby Rhod).
By JANET MASLIN (The New York Times)
Published: May 9, 1997
The Fifth Element (original trailer)