Can it be a coincidence that both of the big new flicks this Memorial Day weekend — the kickoff for Hollywood’s first summer movie season of the twenty-first century — are basically Hong Kong action movies? The people who think about these kinds of things — current-events journalists, mainly — have already predicted that if the 1900s were the American century, the 2000s may well be the Asian century… but they were speaking economically and politically. I guess it’s probably inevitable that Asia would start to hold some cultural sway in the West, too.
Legendary Hong Kong action director John Woo has made a couple of films for Hollywood before — Broken Arrow and Face/Off — but Mission: Impossible 2 is the biggest, most extravagant, most expensive shoot-’em-up he has helmed to date. And as so often happens when interesting creative types go Hollywood, M:I 2 is watered-down Woo, micromanaged by producers and agents and stars and who knows who else into a near parody of Woo’s trademarked style. Yes, bloody mayhem is beautifully choreographed in a symphony of violence. But the film is disjointed and muddled, as if Woo’s set pieces were grafted into a spy tale that shouldn’t need them, except that something has to distract the audience from its weak, incoherent plot.
Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott: Ever After, Deep Impact) is Generation X’s first supervillain. He doesn’t want power; he doesn’t want cold, hard cash. He demands stock options, and he’ll blackmail them from pharmaceutical magnate John McCloy (Brendan Gleeson: Lake Placid, This Is My Father) using a deadly, genetically engineered bug called Chimera that he has stolen from the supersecret labs of McCloy’s company, Biocyte. Fortunately, the IMF — Impossible Mission Force — is on to Ambrose, and will send their top agent, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise: Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut), to stop him.
See, the thing is, Ambrose is a former IMF agent who’s gone rogue, and he and Hunt have butted heads in the past. How do we know this? Does the film open in the middle of a supercool cat-and-mouse game between Ambrose and Hunt, to let us know how smart these two guys are, to start the movie off with a bang, and to set up the conflict to come? No. The plodding script just tells us — and as any novice scriptwriter knows, Show, Don’t Tell. Later on, there’s a bit of an attempt to demonstrate the battle of wits that has apparently been ongoing between Hunt and Ambrose, but the film gives up on that quickly — ya don’t wanna be too cerebral in a summer flick — and goes back to shoot outs.
There’s a girl, of course, too — there’s always a girl. Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton) could have been an intriguing character. A world-class thief, Hunt recruits her — at the behest of his misogynistic boss, Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins: Instinct, The Mask of Zorro) — to help find Ambrose. But it’s not her felonious skills that IMF needs. Nope: she dumped Ambrose a while back and broke his evil little heart, and Hunt is ordered to use her to mole into Ambrose’s organization. But Hunt has already fallen madly into bed with her, and the fact that millions of people around the world could die if Ambrose releases Chimera is beside the point: the bad guy is shtupping his new girlfriend, and must be stopped.
And that’s where Woo’s poetry of violence comes into play. Movie getting bogged down in manly angst? Blow some stuff up. All that scientific crap about infection and antibodies getting too eggheaded? Motorcycle chase. The music swells as bullets fly in slow Woo-tion, but the action is so over the top and so cartoony that it inspires giggles when it shouldn’t. And by the time we get to the final kung-fu showdown between Hunt and Ambrose, it’s got such an air of “Ugh! Girl mine!” about it that ya just wanna say, “Dougray, Tom, let’s just take out a ruler and settle this once and for all.”
M:I 2 is set in a fantasy world where even the bad guys are beautiful and everyone has sex at the drop of a hat, where foreplay is disguised as a car chase, everyone has a way-cool Macintosh computer, and cars blow up if you look at them sideways. Now, I’m not saying that these are necessarily bad things in an action movie — in fact, that sounds like the makings of a decent summer popcorn flick.
But the problems here can be summed up thus: “Produced by Tom Cruise.” Oooo. Rarely a good thing to let an egotistical star call too many shots on the set. Cruise is a good actor, but he doesn’t have the force of personality to pull off an action hero, which isn’t about acting but about attitude. Lots of closeups of his pretty face — he’s damn near prettier than Newton, and she’s got nothing to do but stand around looking gorgeous — are not an acceptable substitute. And he ends up stealing thunder from characters that should have had a lot more to do, played by actors who deserve more screen time, like the awesome Ving Rhames (Bringing Out the Dead, Con Air), who’s back as Hunt’s sidekick, Luther, and John Polson (as another IMF agent), who’s unknown in the States but is a really good Australian actor.
And there’s another rising Eastern influence M:I 2 shows off: Australia. I can’t help but wonder if the Sydney Tourism Board helped produce this movie, with all its luscious locations in the city’s waterfront, the white sails of the opera house seemingly billowing in the blue sky, and its glittering nighttime skyline. Between Sydney’s star turn here, Gladiator‘s Russell Crowe, and The Patriot‘s Mel Gibson and up-and-comer Heath Ledger, all things Australian seem set to dominate the box office this summer. And just wait: Star Wars: Episodes 2 and 3 and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are shooting Down Under, too. The smartest thing the Australian government ever did was let Fox build those big new soundstages in the land of Oz.
• Mission: Impossible III (review): Sacrificial Tom
• Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (review)
• Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation movie review: familiar yet fresh
• Mission: Impossible – Fallout movie review: here we go again
If John Woo is legendary, then Hong Kong’s Jackie Chan is a veritable force of nature, an actor, director, writer, and producer who’s arguably the most popular, best-known action hero in the world — if not in the United States. His previous, brief forays into Hollywood haven’t been terribly successful, but with Shanghai Noon, that’s bound to change. The best kind of summer fluff, Shanghai Noon is fast, frothy, clever, and features the famous kung-fu moves that mark Chan as a master not only of action but of physical comedy.
The year is 1881. Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu: Payback) is tired of imperial life in China’s Forbidden City, and her English tutor, Calvin Andrews (Jason Connery), agrees to smuggle her to America and freedom. Instead, Andrews delivers the princess into the hands of a former imperial guard, now building a railroad with coolie labor outside Carson City, Nevada, who holds her hostage for a ransom of 100,000 pieces of gold. So the emperor sends off his three bravest imperial guards to deliver the gold… and an advisor’s bumbling but intrepid nephew, Chon Wang (Jackie Chan), to carry the bags.
Needless to say, Chon Wang (pronounced, um, “John Wayne”) immediately upon arriving in the West, gets separated from his group and has to strike out on his own for Carson City. Chon’s path crosses several times, in hilariously improbable ways, with nonviolent train robber Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson: The Haunting, Armageddon) — not quite the gentleman bandit, he’s more the class-clown bandit — and before long they’ve joined up in a culture-clashing, reluctant-buddy symbiosis, a very Han Solo/Luke Skywalker quest to save the princess. A little bit Blazing Saddles and a little Maverick, with some good-natured swiping at Dances with Wolves thrown in for good measure, Shanghai Noon distinguishes itself with witty takes on the craft of the jailbreak and by raising the art of the filmed barroom brawl to new heights. This is an exuberant, wonderfully silly movie — just don’t think too hard about the plot, or where certain characters disappear to for long stretches.
Chan has a lot to gain from the success Shanghai Noon will likely be, not the least of which is creating a whole new mass audience for the kind of physical humor that puts him in a class with the likes of Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. With familiar settings — the top of a moving train, an Old West bordello — for what will be a new kung-fu schtick to most of the American audience, Chan has found a way to introduce what he does best without too much of the culture shock Roy has to endure. Plus, he gets to have a horse as a comic partner, and to relegate the white guy to the status of sidekick — although Roy, with his penchant for self-referential running commentary, would probably debate that.
But the delightful Owen Wilson is destined to be a household name after this flick — or he at least deserves to be. His casual insouciance got lost in the frenzy of Armageddon, and his other films have been indies no one saw (Bottle Rocket) or movies no one should have seen (The Haunting). Here, though, his Roy is the goofily cute guy that makes girls crazy, and the rascal with unlikely self-confidence that makes guys wanna be his pal. I want to see this actor work more, and make me laugh again like he did here.
Ultimately forgettable it may be, but Shanghai Noon is a lot of fun while you’re in it. My jaw ached by the end of the film, because I had been grinning nonstop for two hours.
Oh, and by the way, Jackie Chan lived in Australia as a child. A conspiracy of the East to take over Hollywood? It’s looking that way.