Thursday, November 12, 2009
Asian action filmmakers: Nobody does it better
I finally saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen via Netflix last week because I wasn't interested in watching it in the theater, where I would have been subjected to Devastator's testicles and the close-up of John Turturro's naked asscheeks in IMAX. Michael Bay's six-hour orgy of military hardware porn, incomprehensible action sequences, overdesigned CG characters and unfunny gags about dogs and black people makes both the mediocre first live-action Transformers film and 2009's other Hasbro-inspired blockbuster, the equally mediocre G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, look like Shakespeare. (Film Freak Central's Walter Chaw put it best when he said Revenge of the Fallen, which includes an inane swipe at Obama, is "so last administration.") Revenge of the Fallen was so unentertaining and racist I had to seek relief in a Johnnie To flick, even though it's a film To only co-directed (with Wai Ka-Fai, whom To generously credited as being the primary mastermind): 2007's Mad Detective, which made its American TV premiere during the Sundance Channel's "Asia Extreme" block last weekend.
The incredibly prolific To, who often directs two or three films per year, is my current favorite action filmmaker. Like most other Asian action filmmakers, To shoots action coherently, favors stillness over fast-cutting and hyperactive camerawork and makes me invested in the characters in his set pieces. He's the anti-Michael Bay. When I'm watching a To action sequence, I know I'm not going to be ever saying to myself the following words like I did during any of the live-action Transformers movies' robot fights: "Hold up. Is that supposed to be his foot or his elbow?" To is more consistent than John Woo (whose latest joint Red Cliff I'm looking forward to seeing because many reviewers have said it's his best work since Face/Off) and as skilled at tackling various genres as Howard Hawks was. Unlike Woo, To hasn't made the jump to Hollywood. I'm glad he has stayed put in Hong Kong because the Hollywood suits would most likely attempt to dilute To's work, tinker with his preference for long takes and dark, understated humor and throw him off his game.
Satires about cops and criminals manipulating the media have been a tired genre (Natural Born Killers, 15 Minutes), but To's Breaking News, from its amazing single-take opening shootout to its beautifully drawn characters (especially during the dinner cooking sequence), made the genre interesting again. Just when I thought I was out of the gangster genre after the demise of The Sopranos, To's Election movies pulled me back in. My favorite To flick, The Mission, a tersely written actioner about a group of bored and bickering Triad bodyguards, and its unofficial sequel Exiled are what the Mission: Impossible feature films should have been in the first place: great ensemble pieces in the mold of Seven Samurai, The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen.
Even when To isn't working in total action mode, like in the cerebral Mad Detective, where the gunplay doesn't erupt until the end of the movie, the result is a more exciting film than the tepid, bloated and uninvolving Revenge of the Fallen.
I don't want to give too much of Mad Detective away for those who have never heard of it because the movie, which I highly recommend, is best enjoyed by knowing very little about it in advance like I did. All I can say is it's about a Hong Kong police detective (Andy On) who partners up with a mentally ill ex-profiler (Lau Ching Wan) to track down a missing cop. Lethal Weapon-esque hijinks do not ensue. Mad Detective is more reminiscent of small-screen whodunit procedurals like Life, the American version of Touching Evil, Monk and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, where the genius detective also happens to be a bit of a nutcase. But in Mad Detective, ex-Inspector Bun, who keeps his shirts buttoned all the way to the top like Monk, is even more batshit crazy than the heroes of those procedurals. The way Mad Detective visualizes Bun's powers of observation is the film's cleverest touch and a great example of why Asian action directors like To continually surpass their testicle joke-loving American counterparts.