When pondering the very best bit of The Fifth Element, it’s easy to just say “every scene with Ruby Rhod,” and you wouldn’t be far wrong. Chris Tucker’s caffeinated turn as the charismatic, if terrified, radio host is pure genius from start to finish, no argument. You could even fairly argue that “Multipass” is the best bit in the movie, because when else has an ID been so utterly memorable. But the truth is that none of The Fifth Element’s many marvelous pieces would’ve mattered at all if it weren’t for the force bringing them all together: the movie’s villain, Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg.
In lesser hands, Zorg could’ve been a simple cartoon, either an over-the-top force of Evil with a capital E, or a sniveling underling to the real enemy of the film, Mr. Shadow. Gary Oldman makes him a bit of both and something more, a man who’s both casually ruthless and utterly terrified. He gives him a limp, buck teeth, and a twangy accent to trick you into thinking he’s weak or soft… and then he lights up a smoke while he waits for the Mangalore mercenaries to blow themselves up. It’s not that he particularly wanted them dead, but hey, if they’re not smart enough to ask about the big red button on the gun, then that’s kinda on them, dontcha think? Shrug, smoke, limp away.
That’s what’s really interesting about Zorg - unlike most other villains, it’s hard to really know what he’s passionate about. Does he want to rule the world? Meh, not overly. Make money? Well, he’s already doing that. Zorg tells Father Cornelius that chaos and destruction are what keep the chain of life moving, but he’s not all that committed to the concept. His delivery feels rehearsed, a justification for why he makes money selling weapons. He doesn’t really seem to believe he’s doing good by creating destruction, and he doesn’t really seem to care if Father Cornelius buys it, either. This isn’t a man who wants to watch the world burn, or even who obsesses over his bank account. He’s uncomplicated, but not so simple.
What he seems to be driven by, more than anything else, is a simple need to get things done. Mr. Shadow wants the stones and has told Zorg to get them for him. Zorg is simply looking for an efficient way to do that, because holy shit Mr. Shadow is terrifying. And so Zorg hires mercenaries and threatens priests and tries to blow up a space cruise ship because that’s what he believes will get the job done. And when it all goes wrong, as it was always inevitably going to, he doesn’t scream at the heavens or rage in impotent fury. He just whimpers as he recognizes that he’s run out of options.
Director Luc Besson started writing the story of The Fifth Element when he was 16-years-old, and his heroes reflect a certain childlike simplicity. An ex-soldier and a supreme being are just the kind of characters you’d expect to save the universe. But Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg isn’t the one-dimensional villain that we typically see squaring off against the forces of good, and that’s why he’s the best bit in The Fifth Element.