Can an international hit man working one last assignment in Thailand leave his history of assassinations behind and find true love with a deaf drugstore clerk? Of course not. That’s all you really need to know about Bangkok Dangerous, a very loose American remake of the 1999 Thai thriller by its original directors, the Hong Kong-born siblings Danny and Oxide Pang. Nicolas Cage is in full-on sad-eyed killer mode as he glares out at the world from the middle of a wild, unwashed mullet, contemplating his professional disposition against meaningful human contact in sleepy voiceover. Once he takes a young street thug under his wing and starts wooing a pretty shop girl, it’s clear the hardened killer has gone soft. This is a dark film visually and thematically, with a bracingly downbeat climax. But it lacks narrative coherence or strong action scenes — only a rousing motorboat chase that has the city’s canals running red with blood halfway through the film leaves any impression. Unfortunately, the brothers’ stylish reputation doesn’t seem to have survived the journey stateside — counting this and last year’s forgettable horror outing The Messengers, the Pangs have made two of the most generic movies in recent memory. C-
Proving that there’s more to action filmmaking than vigor and imagination, The Descent writer/director Neil Marshall wrangles innumerable genre mash-ups — Escape From New York vs. 28 Days Later, Excalibur vs. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and, most spectacularly, Moulin Rouge Beyond Thunderdome — and rides herd over a stable of seriocomic exploitation-film elements (including one shot where a cute bunny rabbit is blown to bloody smithereens and an early scene in which a nude bather responds to a home invasion by whipping out the shotgun stashed behind the tub) without managing to break into a full gallop.
Rhona Mitra does her best to cross Kurt Russell and Milla Jovovich as tough-chick hero Eden Sinclair, but she’s a little too dour and unflappable for her own good. When a long-dormant virus breaks out in London, Sinclair heads for quarantined Scotland, ravaged by plague and walled off from the rest of the U.K for 35 years. Craven government officials hope the notorious mad-scientist type holed up somewhere inside (Malcolm McDowell) has developed a cure. One of the villains (Craig Conway) looks like Keith Flint from The Prodigy, and the other is, well, Malcolm McDowell, and they’re fine as far as they go, but the supporting characters are as thinly conceived as the protagonist. I was really rooting for this to take off during the big action set piece, scored with “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but while you can always see what Marshall is going for, the material on screen never plays with the energy and audacity that you know he intended. Alas,the general feeling of been-there-done-that is overwhelming.
Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 World War II adventure is probably most notable for
inspiring a new Quentin Tarantino screenplay. Its three-disc DVD release, from Severin Cinema, is a
surprisingly deluxe affair tied to the Tarantino remake, with Q.T.
himself showing up to interview Castellari and put the
film in some perspective (it was never released theatrically in the
U.S., so Tarantino discovered it on a TV screening). Some
extensive making-of features and a CD of soundtrack music (the third disc) round
out the package.
It pains me to note that The Forbidden
Kingdom has the feeling of a valedictory about it. The film is a
generally westernized recitation of archetypal martial-arts legends
and themes that uses an alternate-realities hook to palm off its main
character arc on Michael Angarano, a good-looking kid who comes off as a variation on a theme by Shia
LaBeouf, in a bid to give a generation of teenaged American
moviegoers a point of emotional entrée to the story of the
Asian other. That director Rob Minkoff had the sense to retain the
great Asian martial-arts choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping and lyrical
cinematographer Peter Pau is to his credit – they give the
film notes of beauty and authenticity that play against the inevitable Hollywood gloss slathered across the story (think
Karate Kid: The Next Generation) and characters.
Exiled, Johnnie To’s loping, episodic crime drama, is set in the Wild West of Macau circa 1998, just before the handover from Portuguese to Chinese authority. Gang activity is rampant; the cops are looking the other way. In this volatile environment, a visit from a creepily taciturn dude like Anthony Wong (pictured above) is likely not a social call. Jin (Josie Ho) figures that out right away when two parties of two thugs each show up on her doorstep looking for her husband, Wo. But if two of these gangsters are hit men, what are the other two up to? Turns out all five of these men have a history together — two of the men mean to execute a contract on Wo’s life, and the remaining two want to protect him. After the tension is released with a quick, inconsequential exchange of gunfire (these badasses would just as soon shoot up the furnishings as exchange dirty looks), Wo heads into the city with his four old friends in search of a big score. And before long, Fay (Simon Yam), the boss who ordered the hit, tears into the whole group.
As good as last year’s James Bond reboot was, The Bourne Ultimatum may provide an even better action-espionage fix. Where Daniel Craig’s Bond exuded a steely sex appeal, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne seems to run on the same grim resolve that drives 24‘s lonely man, Jack Bauer. Deprived of a past and stripped of his present (Bourne’s only love interest was dispatched by an indifferent hit man in the previous film), there’s nothing for this CIA-tuned killing machine to do except try to find out who made him what he is. And, because his CIA bosses are hunting him down at the same time he’s looking for his own answers, the proceedings get brutal. Director Paul Greengrass (United 93) stages lively, intense action sequences, full of handheld camerawork and quick-cuts editing that would teeter on the edge of chaos if not for the tight coordination and choreography of each white-knuckle set piece–Bourne even boasts one of the most exciting martial-arts-style fight scenes ever concocted for an American film. (It’s a sign of the times when the new Matt Damon movie has better fight choreography than the new Jackie Chan.)
Stephen Chow’s newest — about a small town in pre-revolutionary China populated by kung-fu masters who are drawn out of retirement by the arrival of a criminal gang — is being compared to Buster Keaton and Chuck Jones, correctly enough, but its cartoon-come-to-life visuals put me in mind most immediately of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen. Then again, it’s clearly a Stephen Chow film more than anything else, with broad slapstick undergirding typically impressive martial-arts choreography by the amazing Yuen Wo-ping and Sammo Hung.
By itself, the opening sequence — a near-musical set piece involving a group of well-dressed, ax-wielding thugs that come on like the gangs in “Beat It” — is pretty amazing, but the rest of the film is an ever-escalating, near-joyous expansion of the possibilities offered by Chow’s particular brand of homage and parody coupled with a willingness to try anything with CGI. (If you’re watching carefully, you might notice an actor transform into a digital double right before something terrible happens to him.)
Like the other Chow films I’ve seen (only Shaolin Soccer and God of Cookery) Kung Fu Hustle is a fresh, contemporary take on Chinese storytelling traditions, and few directors in world cinema are working so competently and consistently in any mode as Chow is in this one. A really good time.
A little less than halfway through Rumble in the Bronx, Jackie Chan is cornered between a car and a high fence on the top level of a five-story parking garage, with a gang of vengeful punks eager to beat the hell out of him. After a few moments of seeming defeat, Jackie leaps onto one of the automobiles, takes a few running steps, and makes an unaided leap into the air and across the street far below, making a perfect crash landing on a balcony on the next building over. As anyone who’s been paying attention knows, Jackie does his own stunts, and this crazy trick, coming at the tail-end of an extended, expertly choreographed chase scene, is no exception. It makes you want to scream and applaud madly and hell, I’m not ashamed to say that I did.
Now, I’m no stranger to Jackie Chan, and as Jackie Chan movies go, Rumble in the Bronx is really nothing special. (My first recommendations to friends are usually Drunken Master 2, a great martial-arts showcase, and Police Story, a cool cop movie with outrageous stunts that was actually released on video in the U.S. as Jackie Chan’s Police Force.) What’s unusual is that New Line Cinema had the confidence to pick Rumble up for U.S. distribution, slapping a new (digitally mixed) soundtrack on it and trucking it out to a theater near you. Not only is it getting released, but New Line is slathering on the full marketing blitz, touring Jackie around the U.S. and getting worshipful coverage from CNN, MTV, and the Letterman show, among others. The question, of course, remains: can Jackie Chan beat the hype? My guess — almost certainly.
Jackie is Keong, a tourist spending some time in Vancouver, um, I mean New York City, to help out his uncle, who is selling the family’s south Bronx grocery store and taking a honeymoon with his very American sweetheart. Jackie agrees to stay on for a week to help the store’s new owner (Anita Mui) adjust to the neighborhood, and winds up embroiled in a grudge match with the local street gang. To complicate matters, it turns out that the young handicapped boy whom Jackie befriends is not only the sister of a gang moll (Francoise Yip), but also unwittingly involved in the mob’s search for some missing diamonds. The ensuing pandemonium makes good use of pinball machines, a metal crutch, a dozen different ways to clobber someone with a ski, a sports car, a really big monkey wrench, and a hovercraft.
It’s impossible to describe in mere words the full freewheeling scope of all the leaping, kicking, spinning, pushing, pulling, and punching included in this film, but you’ll have to trust me when I tell you it works like a charm. Actual cinematic razzle-dazzle has never been a particular strength of Jackie’s often uneven films (though the editing is always good, because it has to be), but Rumble is a solid, good-looking picture. Especially striking is another scene where Jackie’s got his back against the wall, helpless as his adversaries pummel him with liquor bottles that tumble through the air and shatter in tantalizing, low-key slo-mo. It’s enough to make you forget, until things get really silly, that this is a Hong Kong movie shot in Canada and dubbed into English. On a big screen with digital sound, it sure packs a wallop.
Jackie’s supporting players are terrific. Mui is smart and ambitious, but comically vulnerable under stress, the perfect candidate for Chan’s protection. Yip is the other side of the (admittedly stereotypical) female coin, a gorgeous biker/exotic dancer who’s eventually captured as a hostage but never treated with the run-of-the-mill sadism that characterizes so many action pictures. It’s egalitarian enough that the kid (whose name I didn’t catch) is in a wheelchair through much of the movie, but it’s even better that the kid gloves are off. As a fully formed member of the cast, he’s fair game for the bad guys, who toss him around like a rag doll and even beat him up a little.
Jackie himself is beyond reproach. This charming superstar is aging gracefully, and when he practices his technique on a martial arts dummy in his uncle’s living room, it’s a tantalizing portent of fast times to come. His technique involves sheer stunning athleticism, a healthy and occasionally self-deprecating ego, an eye for the outrageously theatrical, and a sense of his relationship with the audience that recalls Buster Keaton’s. Just as his “Great Stone Face” moniker belied Keaton’s true emotional range, Jackie Chan’s “chop-socky” reputation denies the tremendous pleasure of his dance-like choreography and violent physicality. The cathartic, edge-of-your-seat rush that comes with seeing a Jackie Chan film in a movie theater is one of this generation’s great cinematic pleasures.
But are audiences likely to embrace the occasionally goofy humor or sentimentality of a Hong Kong film? Rumble does have something of a fairy-tale quality, with the action stopping dead at one point so Jackie can lecture the gang members (a la Martin Scorsese’s video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad”) on their bad attitudes, but it’s refreshing to see a movie that’s so honest in its motives. And after the royal ass-kicking that Chan deals to all comers, it sure seems that he’s earned the right to spend about 20 seconds of screen time preaching the gospel. After all, it beats Steven Segal’s newfound environmental awareness, or the postmodern posturing of another Batman movie. (The real irony may be that this movie, so careful with its ultimate moral message that irresponsible violence is bad, is rated R.)
The net effect? The packed house I sat with seemed more than ready for a dose of charm and naive sentiment, especially if it’s wrapped around breathless action scenes that deliver like a half-dozen Segal flicks distilled and concentrated in one 90-minute package. For at least a brief moment, as far as American audiences are concerned, this little Chinese guy may be the Man Who Saved Action Cinema (Drunken Master 2 and Crime Story are waiting in the wings). My advice? Enjoy it while you can — that is, while Hollywood needs Jackie more than Jackie needs Hollywood. One of these days, through the miracle of digital effects, Hollywood is going to figure out a way to have Jean Claude Van Damme or Arnold Schwarzenegger waterski in their bare feet, effortlessly, and God help us then.