Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones revisit some blasts from their pasts in "The Family," a violent action comedy about a mob family in France thanks to the witness protection program.

De Niro does a little "Analyze This" as Giovanni Manzoni, who ratted out his mob pals back in Brooklyn and now has a $20 million price on his head. He is, he narrates, "a nice guy" who just has to control "my sadistic urges" better. He's prone to beating people senseless or to death over things like poor service, "disrespect" and the like. And he's in France.

Pfeiffer tones down her "Married to the Mob" turn as Maggie, the long-suffering wife, moving to yet another town where these people -- "The Blakes," they're called this time -- need to fit in. But her encounters with rude French salesclerks bring out the practicing pyromaniac in her. Their kids -- Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D'Leo) -- have another high school to master and have their way with.

And Jones is a milder-mannered version of his U.S. marshal characters as a government agent who tries to keep these four alive, and keep the incidents with the locals to a minimum.

And even though the cast is first-rate, "The Family" tends to lurch between laughs, with the most reliable humor coming from the Blakes' over-the-top violence as a way of solving every problem.

De Niro is the funniest he's been since the "Analyze" series, and one scene -- he's invited to be a guest speaker at a film society -- manages huge laughs based on his past filmography.

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Director Luc Besson established his action cred decades ago with "La Femme Nikita" and "The Professional," and he wrote and produced the "Transporter" and "Taken" movies. But nobody ever accused Monsieur Luc of having any flair for comedy. The backhanded slaps at French snootiness, softness and overrated cuisine, and his idea of this sort of mob folk -- adept at violence and quick to use it -- aren't particularly funny.

PLOT Mob family goes into the witness protection program -- in France.

RATING R (violence, language, brief sexuality)

CAST Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones


BOTTOM LINE First-rate cast in a third-rate movie


Robert De Niro is no stranger to comedy, having achieved some of his biggest successes ("Analyze This," "Meet the Fockers") by lampooning his screen image. But in Luc Besson's mob comedy, "The Family," he seems unusually engaged playing a mobster trying to reinvent himself as a writer.

"It was based on a novel called 'Malavita' by Tonino Benacquista. Luc Besson told me that he had this book, la la la, that I should read it," De Niro says. "Then there was a screenplay. Luc was only going to produce it. He didn't want to direct it. But as we were trying to figure out who could do it, we realized it had to be him. It was his vision from the beginning, really. That was a relief to me, because I wasn't sure another director would get it as well as he did."

Though this is essentially a French production, it is in the tradition of Hollywood gangster movies. But it doesn't feel like a typical American movie.

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"I think that's part of what Luc brought to it, how he felt about it," the actor says. "He's French, but I'm sure he liked 'GoodFellas' and many American movies. He's also a writer, so I assume that's one of the reasons he connected with my character."

-- The Miami Herald