If The Sopranos had ended with Tony turning informant and being whisked away into the witness protection program, The Family could have been a big-screen sequel to the TV show. As the movie opens, Giovanni Monzani (Robert DeNiro) is living under the alias Fred Blake in France with his wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and two kids, Warren (John D’Leo) and Belle (Glee’s Dianna Agron). They are moving to a small town after being found out in their previous hideout on the French Riviera.
The children are complaining about the long road trip and the rank smell inside the car. Fred tells them they should have given their German Shepherd a bath before they left. But a couple of scenes later, we find out the reason for the stench is a corpse Fred stashed in the trunk. Once everyone has gone to sleep, he buries the body in the middle of nowhere.
That opening bit is strongly reminiscent of GoodFellas, one of the many movies director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, The Professional) references in sly, funny ways. Adapted from Tonino Benacquista’s farcical novel Malavita, The Family is the rare breed of pitch-black comedy that effectively uses violence for laughs or gasps, depending on the situation.
The Blakes are under the protective eye of an FBI agent (Tommy Lee Jones) who is increasingly exasperated by Fred’s refusal to behave. The former mobster finds a typewriter in the new house and decides to write his memoirs, recounting his criminal past in detail. Writing soothes him, fills his time. But when a plumber tries to fleece him for repairs, he breaks the man’s leg in ten places. And after he finds out the reason the tap water in the house is brown has to do with a nearby chemical processing plant, he builds a bomb.
Fred isn’t the only member of the family with a killer instinct. When Maggie goes to the grocery store and overhears the owner trash-talking Americans in French, she pays for her items with a smile, then blows up the place on her way out. In high school, Warren quickly builds his own network of intimidation, exacting sweet and clever revenge on the kids who bullied him. (D’Leo is terrific in the role, reminiscent of a teenage Joe Pesci who hasn’t yet started stabbing people in the neck with a pen.) Belle is an even tougher cookie, doling out the hurt at some boys who think American girls are all sluts.
The Family is the first English-language movie Besson has directed since 1999’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, but he has written and produced a slew of action pictures in the meantime (Taken, The Transporter, Colombiana). This movie has a striking visual style, but Besson’s primary focus is on his characters. He balances humor and drama with surgical precision, making us love this crazy family and fear for their safety. The movie is a cartoon, but the stakes are surprisingly real.
Pfeiffer gets to mine the menacing aspect of her beauty — she’s always seemed a little dangerous — and DeNiro, who lately has been going through the motions, seems fully engaged and excited by this role. Fred affords the actor an opportunity to strike a broad range of notes, including a wonderful sequence in which the movie enters meta-territory that would make Martin Scorsese cheer.
The Family climaxes with an extremely suspenseful shootout that leaves a high body count and wracked nerves in its wake. But what you remember most are the funny bits and the unconditional love these twisted family members have for each other. The Addamses have nothing on the Blakes. Just pray they don’t move in next door.
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Dominic Chianese, Vincent Pastore.
Director: Luc Besson.
Screenwriters: Luc Besson, Michael Caleo. Based on the book by Tonino Benacquista.
Producers: Luc Besson, Ryan Kavanaugh, Virginie Silla.
A Relativity Media release. Running time: 112 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday Sept. 13 at area theaters.