Casting Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as husband-and-wife Mafiosi gives director Luc Besson the opportunity to set in motion a whole train of Mob movie associations (and some choice in-jokes) in his dark crime comedy The Family, and the pair’s ripe performances and sparky chemistry help give focus to an otherwise fuzzy film.
De Niro’s Brooklyn gangster Giovanni Manzoni, wife Maggie (Pfeiffer) and teenage kids Belle and Warren (Dianna Agron, John D’Leo) have been living in witness protection in Europe since Giovanni snitched on his former comrades.
Blending in with the locals, however, is not something the clan does very well, much to the despair of their FBI handler (a delightfully deadpan Tommy Lee Jones), who has to move them to a fresh location every few months. De Niro has a habit of bludgeoning plumbers with a baseball bat when they try bilk him; Pfeiffer tends to set fire to supermarkets if they don’t stock peanut butter; and their offspring are quick to deploy similar tactics at school – as we discover when they fetch up at their latest billet in sleepy rural Normandy.
Besson mines a fair amount of humour from this set up, though you may find yourself flinching once or twice. But it isn’t just the violence that jars. What’s most disconcerting is that the French Besson is siding with the thuggish American outsiders against his compatriots, and clearly relishes the comeuppances De Niro and co mete out to the snide and snooty locals.
He doesn’t really find the right tone to hold all this together, and the jokes could be funnier, but there’s a certain frisson in watching De Niro’s short-fused Giovanni explode – and with a team of trigger-happy Mafia hitmen on his trail you just know there’s going to be an opportunity for Besson to go ballistic, too.
The Family: Certificate 15. Runtime 111 mins. Director Luc Besson.