Sunday, September 21, 2008

Film Review--Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

Bangkok Dangerous (2008)
directed by the Pang Brothers
written by Jason Richman
starring Nicolas Cage, Shahkrit Yamnarm, Charlie Young, Panwarad Hemmannee, Nirattisai Kaljaruek, Dom Hetrakul

A hitman finds love which compromises his craft and upsets the perfect balance he has determined for himself.

Yes, the story is hackneyed. Yes, it uses all the familiar tropes to tell it’s all–too–familiar story. We’ve seen it before hundreds of times and it’s nothing new. Despite all this, this film manages to do enough to sustain a level of interest for its duration. Most of this probably has to do with Nick Cage’s performance as Joe, the hitman who has been given four assignments in Bangkok. He hires a kid named Kong (Yamnarm) to run errands for him regarding the hits for sinister gangster Surat (Kaljaruek) and his crony Aran (Hetrakul).

Joe gets injured in a shootout and enters a pharmacy for some medication. He apprehends Fon (Young) and sets his sights on her. Joe asks her out and they spend a great deal of time getting to know one another. Charlie Young is positively effervescent in this film. She completely sells Fon’s love for Joe and this is by far the most effective aspect of the film. Otherwise, it’s merely a standard hitman pic with no necessity and no urgency. But, Young transforms an otherwise pedestrian film into something of note.

This film switches it on now and again and the subsequent jolt of energy is cleanly felt against the temples. This is not the same film as the first one and this is readily apparent from practically the first step. The first one featured a great number of strange edits involving seemingly incongruous elements and this film plays it straight throughout. Indeed, there are any particularly memorable shots in this one as it satisfies itself merely telling a story that everyone has heard. Also, this film is about Joe’s business and the original features more of Kong’s solo work. In the original Kong is deaf and in this one it is Joe’s girl Fon. Kong falls for Fon in the original while Joe is dating Aom (Hemmannee). Here it is Kong who meets and greets Aom while Joe dates Fon. They are interesting switches that change the complexity of the story. There isn’t a sense of innocence and pure unadulterated joy that originates from Fon and Kong in the first one. Here Kong is a wisecracking thief who has lost that innocence and is more decayed and cynical.

Kong is a budding, multifaceted face of grim, tortured culpability. He’s the shaky future of this enterprise–hallowed, deliberate, and polite straight through to the kill. In essence this is a buddy film with zero assurance between partners. It’s simply a matter of maintaining order and adhering to the code which controls his actions and assures that he get the job done clean and fast. However, he breaks the code due to his innate longing to see something beyond these shady greys that have insured him in the past against the frayed emotional bonds of free human interaction. He chooses Fon knowing full well that he is stepping into truly dangerous territory from which one can not so easily extricate oneself.

Musically, this film keeps the tension and plays scattershot with the emotions which works to its advantage. It sustains the dank, pitiable mood that is established early on and gives the film a definitive boost in scenes for which it is required. Sometimes, however, silence is preferred and on these occasions the music sometimes manages to get in the way of the performances. Essentially, however, it keeps the pace and jacks the film with a continuous emotional legitimacy. There is a liquid quality to this film that translates to graceful camera work in which the actors seem exceedingly languid and generally poetic in their gestures and postures. Despite the predictability of the plot and all the film’s deficits it still manages, on occasion, to creep up on the viewer in unexpected ways. These moments are scarce and mostly realized through the eyes of Charlie Young who brings a sweetness to her silent role that embodies the necessary slow-downed aesthetic that the film tries desperately to maintain when its not busy demonstrating a brutal, if typical smash-mouth philosophy.

Certainly the film doesn’t stray very far from the formula which historically has informed these types of films where an antihero faces a generic hurdle that directly challenges his heretofore established point of view. Joe has developed a strategic niche that demands a particular code of behavior to which he has systematically aligned himself with. It’s a basic plot device that must be gradually overturned and this film does so with another obvious device that is introduced via his relationship with the girl. Again, despite the pedestrian nature of this development, the film establishes a particular style which elevates it and instills a specific integrity into the story. Fon is more than eye candy which distracts Joe from his particular course of action. She represents something darker and more primitive which he uses as a bulwark against a lifestyle that has become merely routine without the sudden rush of accomplishment that has come to define the experience.

Teaching is a basic element to this story and the relationship between Joe and Kong develops along the same generic lines that afflict the rest of the film. Kong is an able student who ingratiates himself with Joe and essentially forces his hand. Joe’s plan is to rid himself of this unwanted distraction but his newly minted awareness prevents him from going through with his plan. He is unable to proceed in the expected fashion because, as he states, he sees a bit of himself in Kong and killing him would be like killing a part of himself and this course of action is therefore unacceptable. Still, their relationship is strained and fraught with pitfalls. Joe opens himself up to a most dangerous condition by allowing himself to become emotionally attached to his charge.

Surat represents the grim face of the mafia whose sole purpose is making as much cash as possible in the shortest amount of time. He plays a decisively manipulative game in which Joe and Kong are but pawns. The film alters when Joe realizes that the man who issues forth the death warrants considers the pair something of a liability. This is a world where honor, integrity, and morality cease to operate in the expected fashion. Surat is demonstrably calm in the face of issuing forth edicts that bring so much carnage to whomever he determines deserves to be handed their fate so unceremoniously. He is jury, judge and executioner who takes no risks and leaves the administering of his brand of justice to underlings who are all too apt to take the bait and risk their lives for the sake of a bit of cold hard cash. Joe is a puppet who lives out of a suitcase from job to job. He is a weak man who is unable to extricate himself from the plan of operation which enslaves him, clouding his vision of what is right, what is noble. It is Nick Cage’s performance that makes his character remotely likable. It’s a case of a big star, with their inherent desirability, transforming an ugly character into something more accessible. In this sense there are no disagreeable characters because audiences will always attach their positive feelings regarding the actor to whomever they are portraying. Their charisma wins out every time unless the actor is capable of slipping so casually beneath the skin of the character so that the audience forgets who they are watching and are able to focus exclusively on the role. Nick Cage doesn’t possess that transparency in this film because there is never a second in the film that it isn’t abundantly clear who is on the screen. Unknown actors are often the better choices in such roles because these attachments haven’t been forged and they are more able to create a personage who isn’t burdened by familiarity, hopes and expectations.

The performances in this film work well enough for the material. As mentioned, Nick Cage maintains his star status and it is impossible to see the character without first acknowledging the actor who is portraying him. Still, Cage does play the role as one would expect him to. He’s physically present, mutters effectively, and instills a clear sense that his character is burdened by something only he can see. Shahkrit Yamnarm makes Kong approachable and realizes him with nuanced performance that makes a terrific foil for Nicolas Cage’s more brooding, off putting character. Charlie Young is simply a delight in this film. She does everything with gestures and her face which radiates a simple joy throughout the course of the film. She has a permanence about her which is realized in the scenes where she is simply allowed to demonstrate her inherent calmness regarding her particular viewpoint. She is also capable of showing great consternation when Fon realizes the nature of Joe’s activities.

Overall, this isn’t a particularly novel approach to this limited sub-genre. It doesn’t do anything novel but stylistically it maintains a level that is certainly a cut above many such films. It relies on a mood that is consistently conveyed throughout and for the most part it establishes a unity that transforms a fundamentally typical script into a more substantial work. It still lacks a spontaneity and comes off as too polished at times. There is none of the grit that informed the original although the underbelly of Bangkok is shown in a not so shimmering light. The world of gangsters and corruption is exposed and not exclusively glamorized yet there are moments when the film’s stylistic approach does impart a message that grossly contradicts the overall tone of the piece.

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