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Austin Chronicle Scanlines

By Jerry Renshaw

JUNE 21, 1999: 

The Big Hit

D: Kirk Wong (1998)
with Mark Wahlberg, Lou Diamond Phillips, Christina Applegate, Elliot Gould, Lainie Kazan, China Chow, Sab Shimono.

Hong Kong action veteran Wong lensed this Hollywood mess of an action comedy. Wahlberg plays an expert hitman whose assignment is to kidnap Chow. As fate would have it, though, her father has recently gone bankrupt, and to complicate things, she happens to be the goddaughter of the kidnapping gang's über-boss. Wahlberg is a nice guy, deep down, see, and he's easily manipulated by women (he keeps repeating a whine about "all I want is for people to like me"). In a scene that doesn't work at all, Chow and Wahlberg fall in love while preparing a kosher meal for his girlfriend Applegate and her parents Gould and Kazan (playing some of the most painfully stereotypical Jews in recent memory). Soon the two take it on the lam and have to deal with both her godfather and Wahlberg's double-crossing henchman Phillips. Does all this sound pretty farfetched so far? This is a movie that barely holds together at all. There's plenty of action, gunfire, computer-generated explosions, dead bodies, and car chases, but also some very one-dimensional characters, a labored screenplay, and precious little in the way of laughs. John Woo's image of a gun thug flying in slow-mo through the air, a blazing 9mm in each fist, was fresh in Hard-Boiled or The Killer; too bad it's a shopworn action cliché now. Ditto for Tarantino-esque scenes of hardened hitmen chatting amiably before doing their job. Add in Wahlberg's annoyingly aw-shucks demeanor and the portrayal of the Jewish couple that is broad to the point of being offensive, and you have one hell of a movie misfire. Okay for the undiscriminating viewer who wants plenty of gunplay in a film, but then again, you can get the same thing from a Steven Seagal or (god help us) Chuck Norris film, and with about as much depth.

The Replacement Killers

D. Antoine Fuqua (1998)
with Chow Yun-Fat, Mira Sorvino, Jurgen Prochnow, Michael Rooker.

Yun-Fat plays a hitman hired to rub out a detective (Rooker) who put the hurt on the crime family to which he belongs. When he lines up the cop in his rifle's scope, though, he also sees the man's seven-year-old son and can't bring himself to pull the trigger. He finds himself a marked man and goes to a skilled ID forger (Sorvino) to have a false passport drawn up so he can escape the country. While he is at her apartment, though, a rubout squad shows up for the first of a practically continuous series of gun battles. The unlikely partners are forced together as they take it on the run from the bad guys. Novice director Fuqua obviously spent a lot of time screening Hong Kong classics like The Killer, Hard-Boiled, and A Better Tomorrow (especially considering John Woo's hand as producer). This film bears all the earmarks of a HK production, with lots of slow-motion, balletic spins, and somersaults with guns blazing, submachine guns with endless clips of ammo, and plenty of Woo-style heroic bloodshed. As in many HK actioners, guns are practically fetishized throughout this slam-bang shoot-'em-up. The overbearing soundtrack, slick camera work, and stylish lighting give this movie the feel of a 90-minute music video (not surprisingly, Fuqua's previous work was in videos), only without the band. Unfortunately, all the directorial panache can't compensate for a godawful screenplay and tissue-thin character development. Sorvino looks gorgeous as ever, and Yun-Fat is as chiseled and stoic as always, but this is clearly a case in which the Hong Kong idiom doesn't quite translate to Hollywood filmmaking. There's such a lack of chemistry between the two leads that it comes as a surprise to find out that they care about each other even a little bit. Lots of razzle-dazzle cinematic technique and about three million rounds of ammo expended here, but it's ultimately pretty unsatisfying. In other words, plenty of sizzle, but woefully little steak.

The Tram

aka Il Tram
D: Dario Argento (1972)
with Enzo Cerusico, Tom Felleghy, Fulvio Mingozzi.

This curiosity is seldom included in Argento's filmographies but shows his development in the earlier part of his career. A maintenance worker discovers a girl's body stuffed under the seat of a trolley car; with no witnesses, the police detective is left to find out who murdered her. A quick process of elimination is done, and the trolley's motorman goes to trial for the murder. On reflection, though, the cop sees that the resolution of the case was a bit too tidy and decides to reopen the investigation on his own. At only 50 minutes, The Tram was originally produced for Italian television and shows its origins in its TV-production considerations; it was considered to be Argento's "lost film" until Video Search of Miami made it available again. Argento's directorial style is rather subdued compared to other films of his from the period; there's a bit of comic relief (a rarity for Argento) in a crazy man who confesses, and the TV-suspense-movie horn-driven score is a jarring departure from his usual Italian synth-rock or the Morricone-mood soundtracks of his movies. The story, though, is seamless and concise (actually a little compressed due to the short running time), with one or two red herrings thrown in for good measure. Actually, the plot is reminiscent of Argento's literary role models like Hammett, Horace McCoy, and Cornell Woolrich in its short-story-like narrative pace and quick resolution. It's certainly not the best Argento from the period (or even very representative of his work), but The Tram is still worth a look.

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