Sunday, September 21, 2008

Bangkok Dangerous (Danny and Oxide Pang 2008)

Dud Thai

Danny and Oxide Pang's Bangkok Dangerous their remake of their 1999 debut picture is pretty much the latest in an endless line of corpses that fail to survive the transition from across the Pacific.

Not that the Pang brothers are all that; the original Dangerous is pretty much your standard-issue assassin-for-hire flick, made to seem fresh and exciting by the Pang's now familiar Hong Kong-style action filmmaking, and set in the relatively exotic locales of Thailand (the Pangs are from Hong Kong, but make movies in their adopted country). Details matter, of course: the original's killer protagonist (Kong, played by Pawalit Mongkolpisit) is a deaf-mute, taken in by an experienced hitman named Joe (Pisek Intrakanchit) who trains him in the art of assassination. It's perhaps the brothers' most brilliant conceit--in one stroke they eliminate the need for extraneous dialogue, elevate the importance of visual storytelling to an almost primal level.

The remake stars Nicolas Cage--and here the brothers apparently hit a snag: one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood (is he still? Cage hasn't been making productive career decisions lately--Ghost Rider anyone?), and the character he's supposed to play has no lines. Myself, I'd have welcomed it; silent film acting is practically a lost art nowadays, and I'd loved to have seen how Cage would have risen to (or fallen from) the challenge.

But no--we must keep our lead star (who's also producer) happy. Cage in the picture plays Joe, not Kong, and yaks quite a bit; aside from providing portentous voiceover narration ("Rule number 1: don't ask questions") or interacting with his protégé-cum-pickpocket, here given the name of Kong (Shahkrit Yamnam), he has to interpret the gestures of his love interest (turns out she's the deaf mute).

The dynamics have drastically changed: from an ostensibly speechless man who's really a professional killer befriending a sympathetic pharmacist's assistant we have a shyly soft-spoken, "aw-shucks"-style American gentleman (with a flowing mane of Pantene Shampoo hair) courting a prim and proper Thai woman (but then all Thai women are (in Hollywood movies, anyway) so prim and proper they're practically mute anyway, so--big deal). Where in the former the two lovers are on equal footing--one speaks with guns, the other with words, in the latter Joe holds all the cards, and the woman does little more than pose and look pretty under Decha Srimantra's adoring camera lens (Srimantra was cinematographer in all of the Pangs' Eye movies, and in the original Dangerous).

More than just changing the nature of a romantic subplot, taking away the hero's deafness takes away much of what defined him as a character--his solitary ways, his anger, his immunity to the sound of gunfire. He fares better in the action sequences--whirring through the Damnoen Sadauk Floating Market (didn't we see that menacingly waved boat propeller before, in Guy Hamilton's The Man with the Golden Gun? (1974)?), or shooting them up in a factory that for some reason is full of giant water jugs, Joe is too busy firing his gun to schmooze much. But when the action halts and our star is asked to act, the movie falls flat on its hyperactive face. Even the obligatory American boyfriend-meets-mother scene is half-heartedly played for a few miserly laughs--Joe sits uncomfortably on a chair too small for him, and grins as if any minute now he's expecting mother to tug his scalp and check if his hair's real.

In the movie's latter half a girlfriend is kidnapped--in the original this is fresh motivation, setting the stage for retribution of biblical proportions; in the remake, all she suffers are a few bruises, which may arouse a few anxieties, but would hardly drive anyone out to conduct early Armageddon. And one wants to ask--did the Pang Brothers pay their production's light bill? The factory raid is so poorly lit one wonders.
So--I'd mentioned four rules, and we pretty much made hash of the first one ("Don't ask questions"). The second ("Don't take interest in anyone outside of your work") I'd question too--Joe supposedly adopts Kong, to train as a future killer, but for all the interest revealed in his face he could be taking in a temp secretary ("I want you to deliver this parcel, then pick up my dry cleaning before ten o'clock"). Interest? Kong at least responds to Joe's lifelessness with a few choice retorts (My favorite being the one where he suggests Joe fornicate with farmyard fowl). Rule three ("there is no right or wrong") is not just questionable, but downright false--you know there's a right way and a wrong way to make a decent remake. Seems to me the Pangs fell off the Tree of Ugly Remakes and hit every branch on their way down.

Which leads us to the last one: "Know when to get out and walk away rich." Now those words ring true, those betray the taint of truth. One wonders why the Pang brothers didn't heed their own advice, quit when they were ahead.

First published in Businessworld, 9.19.08

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