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Hardcore Milla Jovovich fans can already guess where I'm going to pinpoint the greatest role in the Ukraine-born beauty's long and eclectic career, a career that's taken her into the worlds of fashion, music, and film, into tropical paradise and 15th century France and zombie-infested worlds and beyond. Really, it only takes one perfect little word to explain, delivered with just the right inflection.
Say it with me, folks.
Resident Evil's genetically-altered zombie killer Alice may be the role that gave Jovovich an entire film franchise (and introduced her to series writer, director, and now-husband Paul W.S. Anderson), but the kung fu-fighting space alien of Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (1997) is the role that earned her worldwide notice and lifetime cult status. There's a reason why, at this year's Comic-Con, a fan stepped up to the microphone to ask Jovovich to utter her famous one-word line in the middle of a panel for the fourth and biggest Resident Evil film (which opens in 3D this week with no other studio films to compete against).
Leeloo, with her impossibly orange hair and those strategically placed Jean-Paul Gaultier-designed bandages, is pure innocence, perfect beauty, and feline physicality wrapped up into one Supreme Being. Genetically engineered and sent to Earth to defeat Evil itself, she's perfection embodied, but more than a little disoriented by her strange surroundings, a fish out of water in the brightly colored techno punk future.
As played by Jovovich, Leeloo is advanced in many ways -- intellect, learning ability, physical prowess, empathy -- and blessed with an abnormally self-possessed sense of confidence. Maybe that comes from Jovovich's experience as a child model, fetishized from adolescence and groomed to carry that preternaturally aloof poise of a supermodel.
But Leeloo couldn't have been played by just any lithe model type. Jovovich's unique charisma, impish, intelligent, and animalistic all at once, fuels Leeloo's internal life, making her more than just a superhuman physical being. The actress and Besson collaborated to create the "Divine Language" that Leeloo speaks, a lexicon that's all but gibberish to the human ear but strangely beautiful when it rolls off of Jovovich's tongue accompanied by Leeloo's wild, expressive gesticulations. While you may have no idea exactly what Leeloo's saying, you always believe that Jovovich understands.
The first time I found myself mesmerized by Jovovich as an actress was in the 1988 telefilm Night Train to Kathmandu, a Disney Channel staple of the late '80s. In it, the then-13-year-old Jovovich plays a gorgeous young girl forced to move to Nepal with her parents, where she falls for a Sherpa and discovers a mystical city.
A few years later Jovovich, aged 16, starred in Return to the Blue Lagoon, the sequel to the Brooke Shields romance-adventure. Appearing nude in the island pic, she earned controversy (and a Razzie), and the roles that followed were mildly memorable (Christian Slater's girlfriend in Kuffs, Mildred Harris in Chaplin, Michelle in Dazed and Confused), if not quite revelatory material.
Jovovich's breakthrough in The Fifth Element, then, was all the more important because it marked a shift in her adult acting career. After the film became a $263 million worldwide hit, Jovovich went on to work with directors like Spike Lee (He Got Game), Michael Winterbottom (The Claim), and Wim Wenders (The Million Dollar Hotel). Re-teaming with Besson, she carried her own historical action pic, even if The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc was a commercial and critical dud.
Still, having proved her action chops, Jovovich then landed the lead in 2002's video game adaptation Resident Evil -- a zombie actioner that proved so bankable at the box office that it earned two subsequent sequels, Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) and Resident Evil: Extinction (2007). Now, with Resident Evil: Afterlife set to open, the actress named "The Reigning Queen of Kick-Butt" looks to continue her domination of the very specific cinematic territory she's carved out -- and all thanks to Leeloo.