Wasabi (2001) is one of Luc Besson’s stranger efforts. The French director came from a series of successful hit films, like Leon, The Professional (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997), branding Besson as that funny French guy who made comedic action films and was a director to watch. And then Wasabi arrived as the strangest mix of fast French comedy and Japanese weirdness.
Wasabi is like a reshoot of the earlier, successful film Leon, The Professional (1994). Like in Leon, Wasabi stars Jean Reno as an action hero, except he is a police officer instead of an assassin for hire. And like in Leon, Jean Reno gets attached to a young girl. This time, the officer Hubert flies to Japan because his girlfriend from decades ago passed away, and he discovers that he has a young daughter in Japan to take care of. But the Japanese mafia is after the money that his girlfriend left behind. And so he moves through Tokyo with a feisty, energetic Japanese girl at his side to protect.
The opening scenes quickly establish that this is a comedy. Agent Hubert has a thing for punching people in the face, especially so that they fly backwards through the air. But he also has a romantic heart. Reno simply reprises his earlier roles as a stoic hero, who is nevertheless fatherly and vulnerable. He’s very likable as a character. The jumpy Japanese girl Yumi (Ryôko Hirosue) didn’t do much for me. She was just plain weird and it was hard to see if she was genuine about anything. I guess in typical Luc Besson fashion she was a manic pixie dream girl, but desexualized as a daughter.
Ultimately, Leon is the far better film and helped Nathalie Portman launch her career as well. My guess is that Leon was Besson’s proving ground, and after a series of successful films, Besson found the freedom to let his inner weirdness out and move into fast comedic action for French audiences. We see the same frantic filmmaking in Taxi (1998) from that same period and the series that that spawned. Wasabi never got as popular as his best films, because all that rapid French talking and that Japanese weirdness was just a bit too out there. And Wasabi is a deliciously weird film. It’s full of rapid witty dialogue, fast closeups, colorful Japanese strangeness and great physical comedy.
At the same time, Wasabi is terribly derivative of his earlier work. I already mentioned Leon, which is like the template film for this one. But The Fifth Element also has its ghosts in Wasabi. The feminine Ruby Rhod from The Fifth Element, played by the grating (or hilarious) Chris Tucker, can be glimpsed in spirit in the transvestites whom agent Hubert punches in the face. The red-haired Milla Jovovich who played Leeloo is now replaced by a red-haired Japanese girl. All that is missing is Gary Oldman to play an eccentric villain.
Wasabi still makes for an entertaining evening. It’s very cartoonish, moves at a good pace and there’s never a dull moment. Some scenes are even quite memorable, especially the one when Yumi and Hubert go shopping. Hubert’s sidekick Maurice (Michel Muller) is only partly successful as a comedic element and takes away some of the mood that Tokyo and the silent Reno evoke, but he provides a few hilarious moments. The film is like fast food and works very well when you’re in the mood for it.