There’s something about a film with a hitman who reveals some inner humanity. The Professional is among the best movies ever, and for just this reason. Grosse Pointe Blank puts a lighter touch to the same idea, and the Bourne films qualify in some sense as well. Anthropologists could probably best describe why these movies somehow fascinate people, as opposed to being uninteresting, if not grotesque, bits of meaninglessness that reason seems to suggest. Bangkok Dangerous is a film in this same class, and it inexplicably draws you in just as other films of this type, but it doesn’t know what to do once it has you.
Nicolas Cage is Joe, though it would have been more honest and interesting if he had simply remained The Man With No Name, and he is our assassin. We step right into his work with him, and our story begins with Joe making his way to what he declares is his last job. He tells us of the four rules for being an assassin, and one of them is that you have to know when to get out. He’s starting to look at people as something other than a certain monetary figure, and he knows he is in danger of losing his edge. His last job is actually a series of hits in Bangkok. Following his normal routine, he picks out a sucker to be his delivery man. A sucker we’re told will be Joe’s last victim once business over. It’s tidy that way.
The movie, oddly, progresses pretty much how the audience figures it will. The formula as we know it doesn’t really permit many deviations. His delivery man, being his only actual contact with the outside world, probably isn’t going to get whacked. Indeed, it’s hard to avoid the idea that he’s probably going to become some version of assistant. Beyond that, Joe is incredibly likely to let a woman into his life, and he’s probably going to think a little too much about what’s going on when it comes time to squeeze the trigger at someone.
I say oddly, because the Pang brothers know how to write and direct a film that doesn’t stumble along straight down the formulaic path. This is a remake of the Pang’s first film, and that one had Joe as a deaf/mute contract killer, and was a dark, clever, and a brilliant first effort. The problem with the remake is that it isn’t quite sure what film it is anymore. It’s an Americanization of a cleverly “Hong Kong School” update, but it is only Americanized enough to lose the Hong Kong effect. It’s also pushed as an action film, but the only action scene in it nearly kills the thing all by itself. Joe is an assassin, and the kind that plans things down to the second. Putting himself in the middle of a crowd with no real means of escape is not a plan for killing someone that I’m tempted to believe he came up with. I believe less that he dives right into the high-speed chase to run down his victim. Nothing about that scene fits the Joe the film has given us.
Unfortunately, there is little about the film that ultimately fits together. It’s so close in so many ways, and somewhere in here is buried a film that might have held its head up next to The Professional. As it is, the surprisingly rich entry and visually interesting spectacle falls apart when evaluating the complete work. The love interest doesn’t quite work, though it’s a near thing. The persona that is supposed to carry us through feels off. While Nicolas Cage actually does a pretty good job trying to live up to the layered character, he can’t overcome the flaws in the material.
In the end, this turns out to be a case where coming close to something very good is actually worse than succeeding at the mediocre. A lesser film would have actually been better, because once you set the stage for something that is rather a serious character study, if you miss you’re left with nothing. I could almost recommend seeing it as a point of reference - so that my future reviews of Pang brother films can reference where they improved (and great movies are in their future). Almost recommend... but not quite.
The DVD is a nice package, and though it is not quite filled with special features, the ones available demonstrate the Pang brothers’ superior movie sensibilities. “From Hong Kong to Bangkok” is a 15-minute feature that is largely film critic David Chute’s history of Hong Kong cinema. It’s a very interesting look at how Hong Kong came to be a powerhouse of Asian film. It covers the better parts of the rise of the industry there, from Shaw Brothers studio to classic films such as The Magic Blade and One-Armed Swordsman. Chute also covers the general theories of the Hong Kong school, how that perspective of film is different than anything else in the world, and how it has slowly died since Hong Kong changed hands.
“Bangkok Dangerous: The Execution of the Film,” is a pretty standard “Making Of” featurette, though it is a bit more interesting because we are dealing with the Pangs. Their insights on how film works in general is more interesting than the details of putting this one together, but it isn’t at all bad considering the level of final product. Though this film doesn’t ultimately work, their first version of the story certainly does, and their thoughts on how to put together interesting and visually exciting movies are worth the trip.
The DVD also includes an alternate ending, and it’s a very curious feature. Considering the ending the film actually has, the comparison in ideas is interesting. The actual ending to the movie might be considered an avant garde, non-traditional ending, but it doesn’t work in this film. Too much of the film falls short of really delivering something with the emotional punch that would be required for the film’s ending to have genuine merit.
On the other hand, the alternate ending, though clearly rather rough, would be considered something aiming at a more traditional, or at least more American, sensibility. It’s tidy and leaves the audience with an emotional soft landing. What’s odd is that it is the ending which would have worked better given the movie we actually ended up watching. Given two alternatives, the ending in which everything rather meaninglessly works out in the end is almost never the one I would choose, but here it would have been the right choice. You have to know what film you’ve actually got, and the alternate ending would have at least solidified mediocrity.
The second disc of the 2-disc set is simply a digital copy of the film.