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.
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 Soccerand 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.