In an early scene from Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, there’s a subtle but very telling exchange between the film’s two protagonists. Cab driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has his daily routine interrupted when Leeloo (an early starring role for Milla Jovovich) crashes through his roof. She speaks an ancient language, so the two can’t communicate – until she says the word “boom,” that is. “I understand ‘boom’,” Korben replies. Right away, we’re cued to the limits of Korben’s worldview, mostly restricted to macho action. This is also the first hint we get that this is a self-reflexive role for Willis, breaking down his tough-guy star persona and digging deep into what exactly makes him such a reliable “guy-movie” centerpiece.
For all his typical manly heroism, Korben is a misfit in the film’s flamboyant future. He’s an alpha-male, tailor-made for the ’80s or ’90s, but, after finishing his time in the military, he’s adrift. The 23rd century doesn’t quite have room for him: He lives alone following a failed marriage, has trouble holding onto his job (and his driver’s license), can’t quit smoking and doesn’t have any friends outside of his old platoon. When the mysterious Leeloo literally lands into Korben’s life, he automatically takes on the role of protector. Leeloo is, it turns out, is a supreme being, sent to Earth to protect humanity from an ancient force that threatens the planet every 5,000 years.
There’s a contradiction at the heart of The Fifth Element, with Korben’s manly heroism at odds with his social ineptitude. The film doesn’t try to reconcile these, but rather lets Korben find his own path. By shedding some of his typical, lone-wolf masculine traits while holding onto his undeniable strengths, Korben manages to become the man he needs to be. He learns to work with others and embrace his more sensitive side, even as he’s cracking wise and kicking ass.
Besson drew from French sci-fi comics like Valérian and Laureline—which he also adapts for the screen in next month’s Valerian—to craft a future where everything is exaggerated, but with celebratory undertones and an overall sense that the future’s politics are progressive. The film’s is an overtly queer future where inclusivity seems to be the norm, where gender-fluid and bisexual characters abound. This is a world that has to briefly bend to let Korben in before he eventually redefines his own persona. He’s essentially handed a damsel in distress, ready for rescue by and protection from a strong military type. Once he has his mission, though, Korben has to loosen up and find a way to coexist with everyone else.
One of the people he encounters is DJ Ruby Rhod, played by a hilariously hyperactive Chris Tucker. Hard to pin down for a kid in the ’90s, Ruby radically opened my mind up to what masculinity could be. He’s perfectly at home in this future in all the ways Korben isn’t: He uses masculine pronouns, wears feminine clothes and is attracted to both men and women. That flew in the face of every conventional notion of gender and orientation that I knew.
It’s a testament to the film’s progressive politics that Ruby has aged so well as a character. He’s over-the-top, but never condescendingly so. He clearly doesn’t mesh with Korben when they first meet: Korben doesn’t respond well to Ruby’s excess, and he mostly wants to be left alone, while Ruby, for his part, demands more expression and less stoicism from the boring, bad-for-ratings Korben. In short, they’re from different, seemingly incompatible worlds, but they eventually develop an odd kind of friendship, working together (while bickering) for the greater good.
Young viewers, particularly boys, could take their cues from Korben, who grows to accept and work alongside Ruby—or they could just identify with Ruby himself. These two masculinities are radically different, but Ruby isn’t put down in any way. As positive representations of diversity go, The Fifth Element transcends its tongue-in-cheek humor and deserves some serious credit for it.
Korben grows in other ways too, particularly in how he interacts with women. He falls head-over-heels in love with Leeloo as soon as he sees her, but their relationship doesn’t start off all that smoothly. Soon after they meet, Korben approaches a sleeping Leeloo and leans in for a kiss. It’s a typical sleeping-beauty moment, but it’s also an obvious violation. Leeloo immediately wakes up and puts a gun to Korben’s head as he struggles to find words. “You’re right, I shouldn’t have done that. I was wrong to kiss you,” he rambles.
Korben isn’t surprised, after getting a translation, to learn that Leeloo responded “never without my permission.” It’s a bit of a cringe-y moment when we look back, but also a strong statement on consent and persistent fairy-tale romance tropes. Korben certainly wasn’t the first or last action hero to lock lips with a woman who wasn’t exactly a willing participant. It usually isn’t quite as creepy as kissing a sleeping woman, but the trope of the male hero smooching a none-too-reciprocal woman is neither rare nor romantic. But Korben stands out for beating himself up for it and actually learning from his misstep. Leeloo’s perfectly reasonable demand is treated with the weight it deserves, and it chips away at Korben’s classical machismo that much more.
In the end, it’s Leeloo who has the power to save Earth from an apocalyptic alien attack. She’s the supreme being sent to Earth for that purpose. But she still needs Korben, and at the last minute, he figures out his role. The fifth element needed to activate Leeloo’s power is love, and specifically the love of Korben. But his emotion isn’t enough. He has to tell her how he feels. Even after he realizes this, it’s still a struggle for him. It’s almost absurd to think that the climactic moment relies on a man’s ability to clearly communicate his emotions, but it’s also completely in line with the movie’s overall message.
It’s hard to know how intentional any of this was, since Besson still gives us a stoic tough-guy who saves the day. But that makes it work even better (this is no Lifetime movie or very-special-episode). Besson doesn’t replace the male action hero, but rather makes him more complex. He forces Korben to consider his own identity and adjust it to support the woman in his life, to realize that being the alpha-male just doesn’t impress anyone.