Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bangkok Dangerous

By Elise Nakhnikian

It’s easy to imagine why Nicolas Cage would want to remake 1999’s Bangkok Dangerous. A hit at the Toronto film festival that was barely seen in this country, it’s loaded with trendy camerawork, expertly glamorized violence, and celluloid-tourist shots of Bangkok’s red-light district. Best of all, its hit-man hero is a sensitive soul who puts a hold on the killing for a while to pursue a doomed romance with a sweet young thing who works at a pharmacy.

Cage was smart to hire Danny and Oxide Pang, the gifted twins who cowrote and codirected the original, to direct their own remake. But in turning this flashy little genre movie into a brooding Hollywood star vehicle and casting himself as the lead, he rubbed out almost every trace of life, charm, and visual interest.

The first shock is how muddy, grainy, and just plain dark and depressing the whole thing looks.

The original uses a hatful of showy styles to grab the eye. Maybe they were just the hot visual trend of their day, the way all those popcorn movies now are going dark to seem “deep,” but the Pang brothers used them with panache. Beautiful characters are bathed in a greenish glow or framed against patches of intense color – lime green, sky blue, ochre yellow. Night scenes are vibrant, silver with light and throbbing with energy. The film stock sometimes switches abruptly, turning sepia or black-and-white, but the images it captures are always creamily beautiful. Jump cuts between close-ups that home in on a detail – the side of a face; a drop of sweat hitting a surface; an upside-down, lizard’s-eye view of a scene – focus the eye that much more intently, finding beauty in unexpected places, like the blood of a murdered man that slowly spreads across a bathroom floor after the killing that opens the movie.

All those attention-grabbing tricks can’t hide the fact that the story line is both thin and convoluted, but they make it interesting to watch. And somehow, the tightly engineered artificiality of the style makes the interactions between people feel more visceral, pulling you into the scene with them.

It helps that the actors who play Kong, the mercenary, and Fon, his pharmacist girlfriend, are both gorgeous to look at and enormously sympathetic, with soft eyes and vulnerable, open faces that make you root for their characters no matter how they behave.

Cage’s remake flips the story, making Kong the sidekick and focusing on Joe, the hired killer who takes Kong under his wing and teaches him his trade. Cage plays Joe, of course, and he does it on full sociopathic weirdo mode. Sulky and stringy-haired, his Joe is as off-putting as Pawalit Mongkolpisit’s Kong was winning.

The original Kong was deaf, which helped focus our attention where the Pang brothers wanted it, since most of the first movie unfolds without words. But Hollywood stars like their lines, so Joe has plenty of Mickey Spillane-style dialogue. He even gets some superfluous narration, like when he portentously pronounces, as a montage makes the same point with marginally more elegance: “Bangkok. It’s corrupt, dirty, and dense.”

Hi deafness was also used as motivation, implying that the isolation and persecution he experienced as kid because of his deafness led to his becoming an alienated killer. That may be a stretch, but it makes it easier to relate to him – and to buy his change of heart when he starts to regret his line of work.

The remake tells us nothing about Joe. We know only what we see, and watching this dour zombie zoom about in humorless pursuit of yet another victim doesn’t exactly make you admire his humanitarian spirit. So when Kong starts talking about what a good man he is, in what leads to Joe’s big change of heart, it’s not just maudlin; it’s downright mystifying.

Even the love story is off-putting this time around. While the original pharmacist was spunky and soulful, this one’s as insipid as an animated Disney heroine.

There are still a handful of showy shots, like when Joe kills a man in a boat and we see the shot from below. But these are just flashes of light swallowed up by a big black hole, like the gunshots the Pang brothers stage in the dark, the blasts of automatic fire creating a strobe-like effect.

Movies about mercenaries who want to retire are a popular subgenre (probably because they let us have it both ways, getting all the cool killings while salving our consciences with some chat about how bad they are), so there are plenty to choose from. If you want turbo-charged action with a heart, rent Johnny To’s excellent Exiled. If you want the kind of talky, self-aware pop culture pastiche that Quentin Tarantino does best, take another look at Pulp Fiction. If you want black humor, go with In Bruges or Grosse Pointe Blank.

But unless you’re in the mood for a deadening dose of mindless summertime violence, don’t waste your time or money on Bangkok Dangerous.

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