Well this is a pleasant surprise.
You may have missed it if you’re currently waking up from a coma but Western culture is having something of a moment with regards to how it portrays law enforcement in fiction. A moment that’s come about for no particular reason (incidentally #Blacklivesmatter) but has nonetheless made writers question if too often they portray the police in a positive light. Be it as hypercompetent sleuths, brutal anti-heroes or just lovable goofballs.
So, imagine what it felt like to watch 1998’s Taxi. A timely reminder that what we think of as ‘Western culture’ is not a monolithic entity. That there are in fact entire countries happy to portray the police as incompetent, over-militarised authority figures and the public as just the good-natured bystanders caught up in their antics.
Appropriately then Taxi positions as its hero a cocky young cab driver named Daniel Morales (Samy Naceri). Despite his regular taunts at officers and flouting of the highway code Daniel is never coded as a criminal. Rather he represents a wholly relatable youthful exuberance alongside what is seen as an entirely reasonable contempt for the police. A contempt that remains undiminished as he is hijacked by the nebbish young inspector Emilien (Frédéric Diefenthal) to track down a German gang using fast cars to pull off bank heists.
The film walks a fine line with Emilien; acknowledging that he needs to succeed in order for the plot to work but never presenting him as a figure we might relate to. In fact the film never misses an opportunity to poke fun at how ineffectual, incapable and impotently aggressive he is. Just about the only time he’s able to get one over on Daniel is when he’s abusing his authority to do so. Even his victories are only possible by riding on Daniel’s street smarts and charisma.
However political satire can’t carry a movie alone, especially with a premise more reliant on high-octane car chases and witty banter. It certainly has the latter with most of the humour coming from Daniel’s frustrations at Emilien’s utter buffoonery. The two ultimately make an endearing duo if only from the sheer force of Naceri’s considerable charm. In lesser hands Daniel could have come off as a lout, especially when the jokes veer into sexist and ableist territory (tellingly scripted by Besson who has had very serious allegations made about him in recent years). However, Naceri grounds him with an earnest sense dedication and basic decency. He is an aspiration figure, with his souped-up Peugeot 406 and girlfriend played by Marion Cotillard, but one that is relatable.
As for the chases themselves, well sadly it’s the one area that Taxi’s budget lets the film down. Favouring static interior shots and wide frames it is hard to get a feel for the physicality and momentum. For all the dismissive remarks about ‘car porn’, shooting a chase really is a form of artistry unto itself, an artistry that Taxi just cannot pull off. The film does try to contrive a little more tension by playing with traffic lights and setting its big, final chase on an unfinished motorway but it all still builds to a sense of anti-climax. When the film ends after a brisk 88 minutes you realise just how little action this so-called action movie had to offer.
So, in the end then Taxi is something of a flawed relic. An average action movie that serves as a healthy reminder that films about crime need not be binary narratives of heroic cops versus a criminal citizenry. Let’s hope that the rest of the film industry remember this too.