Once upon a time, Luc Besson’s name meant something. Something positive, anyway. In only the past five years, he has (in)famously written clunkers like From Paris with Love, Colombiana, and Lockout. (Yes, Taken was in there, too, but that has proven to be the exception rather than the rule.) What happened to the guy who, in the 90s, gave us The Professional? And La Femme Nikita?

It’s easy to see why Besson would choose The Family, based on fellow countryman Tonino Benacquista’s novel Malavita, for his directorial return (Besson hasn’t directed anything of note since 1997’s The Fifth Element.) On paper it’s an effective mix of crime and comedy, giving Besson a chance to prove he’s still relevant on both fronts. And having Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer along for the ride? Well, that’s just gravy.

The Family isn’t nearly the home run it could have been, but Besson (or, more specifically, his cast) is able to make it work– despite one of the most egregious plot coincidences in film history and a genre shift that will leave you in the hospital with a pretty nasty case of whiplash.

De Niro is Giovanni, a former wise guy who snitched on his goodfella family to the tune of $20 million and is now on the run in Witness Protection with his wife Maggie (Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), and son Warren (John D’Leo).

They’ve bounced from Paris to the Riviera and are now in a sleepy little village in Normandy, and, as is soon obvious, they haven’t exactly left their mob ways behind them. Within the first half-hour, Maggie has blown up the village market, Belle has pistol-whipped (with a tennis racquet) an aspiring Casanova, and Warren has set up a school-wide extortion network. And let’s not forget Gio himself, who– let’s just say he still has a way with a baseball bat.

Along with the challenge of having to “fit in” to their provincial new home, the family is also permanently on the run from Gio’s former associates, who would like nothing more than to see his head on the end of a sharp, pointy stick.

For the first two-thirds of the film, Besson does a spot-on job of mixing the comedy and the violence (including a hilarious wink to De Niro’s own Goodfellas). It’s The Sopranos as a sitcom– reminiscent of Pfeiffer’s 1988 gem Married to the Mob. But when the bad guys finally catch up with the family, Besson completely (and quickly) jettisons his sense of humor, and the film becomes real serious real quick. It’s such a jarring jolt that you’ll spend the better part of a half-hour searching for something to laugh (or even smile) about, but nothing ever comes.

Despite it all, though, De Niro and Pfeiffer, along with Tommy Lee Jones as their Witness Protection supervisor, propel things forward, reminding us how great they used to be (and can be again). DeNiro’s performance is more reminiscent of Midnight Run‘s Jack Walsh than any of his more dubious recent work (Little Fockers, anyone? The Big Wedding?). And even Agron and D’Leo are able to carry their own weight, which is saying something when you share the screen with this batch of veteran A-listers.

Besson may not emerge from The Family as well as he hoped (and I can’t imagine that executive producer Martin Scorsese will be trumpeting his participation anytime soon), but it’s a solid reminder that De Niro and Pfeiffer still got it, and that Besson himself is this close to joining them.

3/5 stars