September 7, 2008

Movie Review: Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

Back in 1999 the writing/directing brother duo of Oxide and Danny Pang made their impressive debut with a little film called Bangkok Dangerous. I saw the film a few years back, and while the details escape me (I need to revisit it), I remember the film being visually impressive with a story focused on an intriguing character. The film told the story of a deaf-mute assassin who rose through the ranks of the Thai underworld, before making friends with a woman at the pharmacy, leading to a change in his way of thinking and an ultimate violent showdown. Since that time, the Pang Brothers have made a series of well-received films, most notably The Eye series (which jumped across the Pacific earlier this year and starred Jessica Alba). In 2007 they made their English language debut last year with The Messengers, a less than stellar horror film. Now, they take another shot at Hollywood by revisiting their debut film.

Bangkok Dangerous is not exactly a remake of the 1999 film, it is more like, using the current crop of buzz words, a "re-imagining" or a "re-invention." This fact could, perhaps, also be used to color fans of the original or just of slightly more adventurous foreign cinema. In some ways that would be accurate, I doubt that you will ever find a film featuring a deaf-mute assassin coming out of Hollywood, not to mention a star willing to go an entire film without saying anything (remember Stallone in Judge Dredd? He wouldn't do the movie if he couldn't take the helmet off).

So, the Pang Brothers teamed with screenwriter Jason Richman, who also wrote the recent Kevin Costner film Swing Vote, to rework the story for a new audience while still retaining some of the flavor that made the original work so well. Even with the changes, the film has a very distinctive feel and is quite different from your standard Hollywood fare. It is an action film that isn't an action film, a thriller that isn't a thriller, it is a film that is as much about atmosphere and the metaphysical as it is with visceral violence and the overall plot. This is the movie that the Pangs should have made their English language debut with rather than the lackluster The Messengers. Better late than never, I guess.

As the film opens, we are introduced to Joe (Nicolas Cage), a hitman for hire. He lives a lonely life, as directed by his rules. Those rules include never leaving a trace, always finishing a job, never take an interest in people, and know when to get out. Good rules to use when you take up this line of work, and rules that will be put to the test over the course of the film.

Joe, if that is his real name, has landed that one big job that will put him over the top and send him into retirement. He is to go to Bangkok or four hits and then fade into the world. Joe arrives in the Thai city and begins to size up the situation. He goes about setting up his operation, obtaining suitable help and getting down to it.

He teams with Kong (Shahkrit Yamnarm), a young man who works tourists for their cash. Kong becomes the go between for Joe and his benefactors. This mainly involves transporting briefcases to and from a local dance club, each case containing the target and the necessary equipment.

Naturally, not everything goes as planned. Actually, his work in Thailand becomes increasingly complicated. Joe is reaching a crossroads, his desire for human interaction begins to overtake his need to complete all jobs he is hired for. These complications include developing a friendship with Kong, and even more so by his budding relationship with a deaf-mute girl who works at a pharmacy.

To describe further runs the risk of taking away from the film. Still, I found the film to be fascinating to watch. I have never been the biggest fan of Nicolas Cage, yet, more often than not, he turns in a good performance. Here, his long face (and increasingly worsening hair) and sad eyes works towards internalizing a great deal of pain and sadness that is coming to a breaking point.

Bangkok Dangerous is not so much about the plot as it is about Joe reaching a moment in his life where his choices are limited and neither one will work. It is a tragic story about a man who cannot go back nor can he go forward. His life's decisions have led him down a path that leaves no room for normal relationships. Just watch him with Winai, he does not know how to act and when his instincts kick in, the results could be fatal. He is also reflected in Kong, an eager young man who intends to follow in Joe's footsteps.

The movie has a great look. It has a gritty, over exposed look that just drags you in and doesn't let go. The Pang Brothers forgo the slick Hollywood sheen in favor of a style that more accurately reflects the central character and what he is doing. It works very nicely.

Bottomline. This movie delivered more than I was expecting. I was hoping for an action film in an exotic location, what I got was something more introspective, but still with a good dose of violence. It is more than a movie about a hitman, it is about a man finding his place in life, just a little too late.



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