The review contains a lot of spoilers, you have been warned (bolded for the tl;dr crowd).
Remember, you read it here first! A star is born! Amandla Stenberg steals the entire film, which isn't bad considering she's only ten years old and is onscreen for only the opening fifteen minutes or so.
She plays the lead, Cataleya, who, as a nine-year-old, witnesses her parents' murders by Marco (Jordi Mollà), evil henchman of evil drug lord Don Luis (Beto Benites). But mom and pop had it coming anyway, because every Colombian in this film is a drug dealer and / or killer and / or gangster of some kind.
Not only does Amandla display genuine terror (I wonder how director Olivier Megaton got her to do that: threaten to put a puppy in a blender? "You see zis cute little baby puppy doggy, Amandla? You see 'ow I put 'im the 'ow you say, blendeur?") but she's handy with a hunting knife too, putting her mark on Marco before going on a rooftop parkour run for her life, dodging bullets, a motorbike, a parkouring pursuer and various SUVs. It's all breathtaking stuff that makes you read the end crawl really carefully to see if any little girls were harmed in the making of this movie.
Cataleya then makes her way to the U.S. embassy and - a nice touch this - pukes up a micro-SD card, a parting gift from daddy, which contains some kind of secret information that gets her instant citizenship and is flown to the States. She then dodges her handler and makes her way to Chicago and Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis), who, being Colombian, is also some kind of gangster. We know this because we're introduced to him beating some guy to a pulp in a container.
Back in the safe and loving arms of family, Cataleya decides she wants to be a professional killer and waste everyone who had anything to do with the deaths of her parents. That'll be all of Colombia, then! But first she has to go school and, after bribing the principal to overlook Cataleya's late start and presumed missing grades, uncle Emilio convinces her education is the best way - by pulling a gun in broad daylight and shooting a passing car full of holes and causing it to crash! Since nobody witnesses anything, he is able to calmly put it away and explain that whilst anyone can do that (and presumably not get caught, ever), the three R's will give her a better, uh, shot in life.
So far, so brilliant. But then we fast forward fifteen years and get... Zoe Saldana, whose vehicle this is.
It's not that Ms. Saldana doesn't look good (especially after her appearance at the Avatar press conference in Berlin, where she appeared to be promoting anorexia as a fashion statement), nor is it her athleticism, but in what is a standard Luc Besson - Olivier Megaton (crazy name, crazy guy!) mayhem movie, she is called upon to act. It's not only out of place, but her gamut runs all the way from A to not-quite-B.
Instead of a ninety-five minute waste-'em-up, we also get a completely unconvincing sub-plot love affair involving her and artist Danny Delaney (Michael Vartan). And is it just me or do all his 'paintings' feature penises in some shape or form? He knows nothing about her, and certainly not that she's a serial killer with twenty-two notches to her credit (Only Colombians, of course, because they all have it coming) on behalf of Uncle Emilio.
This results in the film being at least quarter of an hour longer than it needs and braking the action when it needs to keep roaring. Liam Neeson didn't need any kind of emotional claptrap in Taken so why here? So what if Cataleya is 'tortured', 'damaged' etc., do we care? No! This is essentially a cartoon film with live actors.
Of course, Cataleya's really after Marco and Don Luis, them having been conveniently relocated to the U.S. by the CIA (ostensibly because Don Luis is an informant) but allowed to carry on being major drug dealers. Just work with me here, okay? Like I say, this is a cartoon at heart. So to draw him out, she works her way through his people, drawing a large orchid on the bodies of her victims (It looks like five penises joined up, by the way), replicating a necklace he gave to her father before ordering him wasted and which he gave to her before being wasted. Don Luis knows what that means. The orchid, that is, not the penises.
Meantime FBI Agent James Ross (Lennie James) is on Cataleya's tail for earlier smuggling herself into a high security jail and taking out a really nasty piece of Colombian work. Thanks to a helpful orchid-recognizing cleaner (in an audible groan inducing moment) and that penis-drawing artist guy of hers, the cops and feds get a solid lead on her. Cue a Leon-a-like shoot out and chase through her apartment block from which she, natch, escapes.
Not that Don Luis hasn't been busy either: he's taken out Uncle Emilio and the latter's mother. This gives Ms. Saldana another chance to act, which she seizes with both hands - and tosses out the window. I'm sorry, she can't, she really can't do it. In the hands of a real actress, such as Angelina Jolie, or waiting for Amandla Stenberg to have gone through puberty, these extra scenes would have worked and added some depth to the character, but Saldana can't carry it. Just paint her blue and have done with it, fer chrissakes!
Cataleya now goes on her merry way, finally tracking down Don Luis via threatening Agent Ross, who leads her to the CIA handler who, prompted by a bullet through the window, spills Don Luis' whereabouts.
The rest of this by-the-numbers, going-through-the-motions film is her taking out Don Luis' hired help who, unlike her, are not bullet- or bombproof, until it's time to deal with Marco, using mostly a hand towel, and finally Don Luis, using two dogs that have been trained to eat on command. Pretty cool, but sadly we don't get to see it.
It's not that Colombiana is bad, but nor is it particularly interesting. It's all rather rote, like an overtired and bored hooker giving yet another handjob. Nobody, apart from the amazing Amandla Stenberg, and those technicians, extras and stuntmen hoping to get their next gig, is really giving of their best, and Zoe Saldana, despite her clearly visible efforts and exertions, and innate hotness, is out of her depth, handicapped by her limited acting ability and a script that unfairly calls on her to show some.
Review by Simon Kingsley