“I Want to Be a Killer. Can You Help?”

Movie Review: Columbiana (2011)
Summary: A young girl becomes an assassin to hunt down the crime lords who murdered her parents.
Spoilers: none

Nine-year-old “Cataleya” (Amandla Stenberg) was born into a mob family in Bogota, Columbia. Having witnessed a rival crime family murder her father (Jesse Borrego) and mother (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), this extremely cute but tough-as-nails little kid would rather not hide in foster homes in witness protection, sobbing and crying in efforts to repress life-shattering memories. This little girl is stone-cold made for the kind of action that makes movies about payback and brutality so darn fun!

After escaping with her life and making it to America, she jumps off the grid and heads to Chicago where she finds a home with her uncle "Emilio" (Cliff Curtis) and grandmother (Ofelia Medina). When she is enrolled in school, all she can think about is her future as an assassin.

“I Want to Be a Killer. Can You Help?” she asks her uncle. How do you reply to a young girl who looks like she should be holding a teddy bear while shooting text-speak messages to her BFFs on a school playground, but has a heart like Clint Eastwood’s William Munny from Unforgiven who can kill and and move on without so much as a bad night’s sleep? “Sure,” uncle replies.

Raised, trained, and tempered by her uncle who – like his deceased brother, knows well the family business – we find Cataleya years later as an adult (Zoe Saldana). She’s made good on that sweet childhood dream of becoming an ice-cold assassin. She’s on a mission—to hunt down and kill, like slovenly dogs, the kingpins who slaughtered her family those many years ago.

I’d put Cataleya up against any of the big action heroes. This girl would give Jason Bourne, James Bond, or Jack Bauer a sweat-breaking run for their money. Her plotting, tactics, and second-to-none cunning make her more than just lethal—she’s a glimmer in the night, a flash her enemies won’t see until it’s too late.

And Cataleya has a calling card based on a necklace given to her by her father just before he died—the South American Cataleya flower. When she finishes off her opponents, she leaves messages with the flower written on their corpses.

But in the business of sending messages via dead bodies, you don’t have to wait long until you find yourself on the receiving end. With the law and the mob hot on her trail and her adoptive family in danger by her actions, Cataleya’s survival skills will be put to the ultimate test.

But perhaps more regrettably, our sweet-looking assassin is missing out on a lot of life. She doesn't smile once in the film. The closest she gets to a social relationship is with an artist, “Danny“ (Michael Vartan) who digs her, but can’t figure out why she won’t open up to him. She knows that the path she has chosen to walk has horrific consequences, but in a movie like this, that’s not the bad part; the bad part is that it isn’t always clear that Cataleya is fully aware of the consequences of her actions as they affect others.

The characters we are given may not be original. A few of them may even lack dimension, but it’s what is done with these characters that so freely allows the movie to succeed in its gruff-but-satisfying goal. Young Amandla is a star waiting to shine. Saldana could be the new, hot moving target in action films.

The no-nonsense construction of the film is undeniably entertaining and will give audiences just what they want. This is especially true with regard to more old-fashioned viewers. We have no time loops, no misdirection, nothing that tends to frustrate audiences—just a beautiful criminal who knows her trade well.

The frustration comes with the use of one very popular myth that literally thousands of action movies have fallen prey to: The police need more than 30 seconds to trace a call. Utter bullshit (as anyone who has ever prank-called 911 knows). And at the film’s conclusion, we have one small plot-hole that does the most damage. It involves the final kill and is a bit of a stretch to imagine.

But all in all, Columbiana does exactly what it aims to do—provide audiences with a knee-knocking, adrenaline-pumping good time at the movies with a special knack for making execution-style murders exciting.

Brought to you by the writers of 2008’s flawed but memorable Taken with Liam Neeson, Columbiana is a fun payback picture where you happily ride with the action in wonder of what’s coming next. It doesn’t have to be a polished piece of perfection to be one of the coolest films I’ve seen all year.


Grade: B- (3 stars)
Rated: R (for strong violence and language)
Director: Olivier Megaton
Starring: “Cataleya” (Zoe Saldana), “Marco” (Jordi Mollà), “Ross” (Lennie James), “Cataleya, age 9” (Amandla Stenberg), “Danny Delanay” (Michael Vartan), “Emilio Restrepo” (Cliff Curtis), “Don Luis” (Beto Benites), Fabio” (Jesse Borrego), “Alicia” (Cynthia Addai-Robinson)
Genre: Action / Thriller / Crime