Twin brothers Oxide and Danny Pang have established an impressive reputation in Asian cinema for their takes on everything from classic Japanese horror (the original The Eye) to inventive action films like the original, Thai-language Bangkok Dangerous. But their first American film, The Messengers, was met with general disdain, and unfortunately the English-language revamp of Bangkok Dangerous won't be any help either. For a movie about a ruthless hitman, it's strangely plodding and slow, and any charm Nicolas Cage has shown in the past is completely absent in the role of Joe, the glum hitman gradually revealing heart of gold.
The Pangs smartly get the action started early, showing Joe on the job in Prague, but it takes ages after that before we see anything resembling an action scene. Joe is on business in Bangkok doing what he swears will be his last job, assigned to kill four men by shadowy gangsters with no apparent motivations. Joe's targets are complete blanks too, though one appears to be a notorious gangster, and the other drives in a shiny car with a bunch of other men in suits, so he must be bad.
The details of Joe's job, and all the fun, violent parts of a movie about a hitman, are set aside in favor of a handful of emotional side stories, most of which only work in fleeting moments. When arriving in Bangkok Joe immediately finds a Thai huckster named Kong (Shahkirt Yamnarm) to act as his assistant, planning, of course, to kill him when the job is done. But due to some unexplored tenderness in his personality that only shows up at convenient moments, Joe instead takes on Kong as a protege, teaching him to fight and fire weapons in a series of weird, Karate Kid-esque montages.
And Joe and Kong also have their own romantic entanglements to deal with. Kong stupidly mixes business with pleasure by wooing Aom (Panward Hemmanee), a pretty dancer at a club who acts as a liaison for the gangsters who ordered the hits. Joe, for his part, finds himself smitten with a deaf-mute woman named Fon (Charlie Young), who takes him on dates to pet elephants and, at one point, is inexplicably dancing for him as part of a traditional Thai group dance.
In the original Bangkok Dangerous, the character of Joe himself was a deaf mute. In the remake the directors try to substitute being a white American who doesn't speak the language, but we've seen so many Americans go kick ass abroad at this point that it never seems to be a viable obstacle. Instead, Fon is the deaf-mute, and as a result becomes the ultimate subservient, seen-but-not-heard female Asian stereotype, a geisha with a job at a pharmacy. Fon's job in the film-- to show Joe's burgeoning emotional intelligence-- never works, because their emotional connection never makes its way past the language barriers and the gimmicky mute character.
All of this might be easily moved past if the parts of the film you paid money for weren't disappointing as well. Joe, because he is good at his job, carries off the first two hits with ruthless efficiency-- sneak up on the target, shoot the target, run away. As a result there's not much adrenaline to the scenes, despite the Pangs' efforts to put some artistry amid the usual hail of bullets. The third hit, taking place at Bangkok's Water Market, is a remarkable and thrilling chase scene, despite the fact that a real hitman would probably be unwilling to make such a public spectacle. And, of course, the whole thing wraps up with a lot of fighting in an abandoned warehouse, but because the gangsters behind the whole thing are never given any motives or characters at all, the stakes feel disappointingly low. The end of the film also devolves into unnecessary graphic violence-- a severed hand here, a disemboweled man there-- which takes away from what little power there was in the fight sequences on their own.
Bangkok Dangerous isn't nearly the ugly, stupid film you might guess based on the poster and Nicolas Cage's hairdo. The Pangs take great care in creating gorgeous shots, and establishing an enchanting, slightly mystical sense of place. The problem is that it all just seems silly when folded into the shoot-'em-up plot. I trust that the original Bangkok Dangerous was something special, but somewhere in the translation, it lost any existing sparkle or verve. Unlike the city it's named for, Bangkok Dangerous is merely average.