Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bangkok Dangerous (2008): Thai Action Not as "Hot" as Hong Kong

The early 1990s marked the heyday for the Hong Kong action film and its infiltration into the zeitgeist of the American film industry. Critics were enamored of the post-Peckinpah stylization of violence as depicted in the films of directors like John Woo, Tsui Hark, Jackie Chan, and Ronnie Yu. Hong Kong's action industry featured directors, and stars, who were conversant with the "history of film."

John Woo's films had scenes inspired by movie musicals and films from the French New Wave. Tsui Hark introduced Western style special effects to martial arts epics. Jackie Chan's martial arts films were direct descendants of the films of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy. Ronnie Yu's use of color and isolation of training sequences as dance numbers hinted at the work of Stanley Donen. These were directors who were using inspirations from outside the action genre to feed new life into what had become a stale genre. In all ways, the Hong Kong directors seemed obsessed with pushing the boundary of what action films could offer. And critics and cinephiles were eating it up buffet style.

But like the American action film, the Hong Kong action film was doomed to eventually become a parody of itself. The HK action film industry, and its disciples, was doomed by its very inspiration. By creating an industry dedicated to pushing the limits of action, and what defines action, they set the stage for a tragic fall.

Before we come back to the HK film, lets look at where American actioners where in the early 90s. It is often forgotten that a film like DIE HARD had inserted new life into the American action film. Forgotten because the 90s were filled with derivative, routine, and stale films that provided the formula of action and little genuine action. American offerings in the 90s included HARD TO KILL, which had some freshness with regard to the presentation of martial arts, but soon spiraled into a series of Steven Seagal "Three Word Title" films of little or no merit.

1990 saw the release of weak, and routine, actioners like NAVY SEALS, ANOTHER 48 HOURS and YOUNG GUNS II, even while continuing the wave of fresh films following in the footsteps of DIE HARD. The year is filled with films like KINDERGARTEN COP, TOTAL RECALL, DIE HARD II and PREDATOR II. It should be noted that two of the good actioners of 1990 star Arnold Schwartzenegger, who will play a role in the decline of the action film, and that two are sequels. And we all know how much film franchises benefit from sequelitis.

1991 featured the release of LIONHEART, a film signaling the decline of an action star's cache, OUT FOR JUSTICE -- a "Three Word Title" Seagal film -- HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN, and POINT BREAK. There are places where one can find critics who are POINT BREAK apologists, the Cinerati website is one of those places, but one doesn't have to look hard at 1991 to see that the American action film industry was desperately in need of a blood transfusion. The Hong Kong action film was there to provide the service.

And what a service it was. Critics and fans loved the films. Eventually, partially due to the end of independent Hong Kong, the industry as it was known died out. Films like Tsui Hark's KNOCKOFF, an American film starring a faded American star, attempted to pack all of the virtues of an entire industry into one film, ending up with a farce of what the industry once was.

Since that decline, fans and critics have been looking for the "next Hong Kong." Which foreign market will inspire and influence the next wave of American film making. Will it be Korea, Bollywood, Turkey, or an "old world" infusion? No one knows for sure. It could be any one of the above, it could be all of the above. We have already seen considerable influence from all of the above.

There is one cinema that we can be relatively sure won't be the major influence, at least in the near future, for the next great wave of action films. That cinema is the cinema of Thailand. Certainly their films, like those of Tony Jaa, often feature unrelenting action. They are certainly, as was the case for the 1999 Pang Brothers film BANGKOK DANGEROUS, inspired by the Hong Kong industry. But they seemed to lack something that their HK predecessors had in spades -- seriousness. The Thai films sometimes seem to be pushing the limit merely to push the limit, or attempt to be an exaggeration of the operatic tragedy of an HK mobster film.

No place can one see the lack of connection these Thai films are having with American critics, and audiences, than with this month's American remake of BANGKOK DANGEROUS. The film was directed by the directors of the original and it stars a marquee level action actor. Given the proper climate, BANGKOK DANGEROUS would be a successful film if it had the proper combination of desired narrative elements, but it appears that American audiences aren't ready for Thai action.

The box office for the film was miserable, and the film rated only 8% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The reasons for the negative critical response are varied. Some critics have genuine criticisms that we should take into consideration, others seem to be merely riding the wave of negativity for the sake of being cool and writing an amusing scathing assault in the hopes of being quoted later -- possibly at the Razzies. I'd like to take a look at some of the "creme of the crop" responses to the new BANGKOK DANGEROUS, but first I'd like to offer my thoughts.

What is BANGKOK DANGEROUS? What is it not? And is it any good?

To answer the first question, BANGKOK DANGEROUS is an attempt at a "serious action drama." It is the Pang Brothers' remake of their fairly successful Thai action film from 1999. The 2008 version contains a prototypical, to the point of being cliche, Hong Kong assassin narrative. In these narratives an assassin seeks to leave the world of killing (echoes of the leaving Jiang Hu trope that is central in most Wuxia films) and seeks to live a normal life -- usually to fail in this pursuit. The failure is usually tied to a redemption of the assassin's moral character, the assassin moves from nihilist to hero over the course of the narrative. BANGKOK DANGEROUS follows this narrative to an almost farcical degree. Where the blinding of a character, and the newfound love between the blind girl and the assassin, is a central component of John Woo's THE KILLER, the use of a deaf girl as a redeemer in BANGKOK DANGEROUS is an almost cardboard imitation. It almost falls into parody. Almost. The performance of Cage and the young woman manage to salvage the dynamic, but never manage to make it visceral. The same is true for the majority of the other performances, they are serviceable but lack the depth necessary to bring the film out of the mediocre.

Most of BANGKOK DANGEROUS is well shot and presents a beautiful neon version of the city. The cinematography is almost brilliant in this regard, but an over-commitment to shadows and an overarching blue palette make the film seem murky at times. The overarching blue palette is a trademark of many HK films which often have a misty blue atmosphere. The use of the blue atmospherics once again demonstrate how BANGKOK DANGEROUS is an attempt at imitating the HK magic, but imitation is not art. Like the cinematography, the score seems influenced by prior art and lacks any real originality or power.

What BANGKOK DANGEROUS isn't is the wild romp of never ending action that the trailer hinted the film would be. It's not even close. Yes, there is action, but the action builds naturally and is sharply focused. This part of the narrative is the film at its best, when the trailer makes it look like this is the most farcical portion of the vehicle.

Finally, is the film any good? As you might have guessed from the above comments, BANGKOK DANGEROUS is a film that could have been excellent. It could have been the kind of action film American audiences were looking for, but it seems to lack some quality. It seems to lack spirit or heart. In the end, audiences are given a passable, and predictable, film that is better than an 8% Tomato Meter would lead one to believe. It reminds us that to be "rotten" a film need only be 2 1/2 stars out of five and that's actually not that bad.

Most of the creme of the crop critics seem to agree that the film falls within the 2 1/2 star range, with a few exceptions.

One thing is certain, the film isn't what one might expect from either the 8% Tomato Meter, nor from the film's advertising campaign.

If Danny and Oxide Pang lived within the fictional world of BANGKOK DANGEROUS, the recently released remake of the 1999, an underground business associate might recommend that they hire Kong two groups of people.

As his first assignment, Kong would be asked to make it seem as if Bryan Tyler had died of natural causes. Tyler's score accomplishes two undesirable ends. It manages to suck the life out of any action scene while simultaneously making the personal conflict scenes of the film seem unbearably slow paced. As was the case with his core for BUBBA HO-TEP, Tyler's BANGKOK DANGEROUS score exaggerates the weaknesses of the film it accompanies, rather than helping to overcome them by pulling the proper audio heartstrings. Tyler has done good work on previous films like THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED and CONSTANTINE, so he doesn't deserve a brutal and public death for others to see "as an example."

The company who edited the film previews for BANGKOK DANGEROUS, on the other hand, deserve brutal and public executions that will serve as a lesson to those who make misleading trailers. The trailer made it appear as if BANGKOK DANGEROUS would be the most ridiculous action film since SHOOT 'EM UP, and that is not a connection any filmmaker would desire. SHOOT 'EM UP is 90 minutes of unrelenting violence and is arguably the worst action film ever made, while BANGKOK DANGEROUS is a moderately paced East Asian style neo-noir film that contains moments of action. The majority of the potential audience for what the film actually presented likely wrote the film off upon seeing the trailer.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
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