When taking on a well-known legend that's already received several big-screen treatments, you've really got to find a new angle to make it worth re-exploring. Thankfully, Besson does offer an interesting spin on the story of the teenage girl who led an army to victory and was burned at the stake before she even turned 20.
Avoiding all the Spice-infused Girl Power clichés we may have expected of this late '90s retread, Besson carefully presents Joan as a very fragile, confused young woman who was manipulated by her peers. He treats her messages from God with ambiguity, hinting that she may just have been suffering from schizophrenia, giving the voice in her head a physical presence in the nasal form of Dustin Hoffman.
While you could dismiss the decision to cast Jovovich in the lead as pure nepotism (she was romancing Besson at the time), she fills Joan's plate mail well, effectively realising the writer/director's vision of the teen martyr. During the battle scenes, for example, she stumbles around like a lost, wide-eyed child, horrified at the carnage - - in other words, like you'd expect any 17-year-old girl to react in such a situation.
These battle scenes are certainly well handled, and while they aren't quite Braveheart-standard, they do feature an interesting array of siege weaponry, from giant flails (which mash heads like a mallet through a watermelon) to boulder-flinging catapults. The warfaring support cast, meanwhile, help to lighten the tone, with Tcheky Karyo taking on the role of exasperated General, and La Haine's Vincent Cassel drawing laughs as a smirking soldier.
But a strong concept, good performances and a few thrilling war scenes aren't quite enough to make this essential viewing. While Joan's "messages" are obviously important, too much time is spent meandering around her mind, with over-stylish dream-weaving padding out the plot and unneccesarily lengthening the running time, and although the use of Hoffman as her "conscience" is a neat device, their verbal interplay becomes tiresome, swamping the third act so much that you're almost relieved when Joan's finally roasted. But, this time, Besson spared us Chris Tucker.
An interesting take on the legend, with some entertaining battle sequences and an astute performance by Jovovich. But Besson's desire to turn up the stylistics makes this feel like a movie that could have been a good half-hour shorter.