Friday, September 21, 2012

Bangkok Badness

With so few new options available in my immediate area after reviewing both Resident Evil: Retribution and Finding Nemo, I decided to give martial arts film Bangkok Revenge a look... wait, what was that? The title that appears on the screen is actually Bangkok Renaissance? And then it has a subtitle in parenthesis that says Rebirth? But it says Bangkok Revenge on the sign outside! What's going on here?

Well, there seems to have been some issue in distributing this co-produced French/Thai production in the States. Obviously someone thought that Bangkok Renaissance would be a bit too confusing, and since the film directed by Jean-Marc Mineo was a classic revenge tale, the refurbished title was an obvious choice. Still, it would have been nice for the distributors to get someone to patch together a new title screen for the movie, even if it was one they were barely marketing.

Anyway, despite a couple of other options including Richard Gere's Arbitrage and the ensemble fem-comedy Bachelorette, I had a strong desire for an action flick. I know, I know, September seems to be packed with one big action film after another, with Dredd and Looper coming in the near future; still, I have fond memories of this past spring's The Raid: Redemption and hoped to capture that same combination of fun and amazement at the execution of impossible stunts.

You should see the other guy.
When his family is murdered by the heavily corrupted police, young Manit is left with a bullet lodged in his head and strapped to a hospital bed, surprisingly alive. Rescued from certain death and trained in the methods of self defense, he is discovered to have no emotions, good or bad, due to his injury. It results in a young man (John Foo) with little regard for others, or himself. Soon he returns home to exact justice on those who murdered his family, aided by a journalist (Caroline Ducey) and a drunken boxer (Michael Cohen) with nothing to lose.

Wax on, wax off... Sorry, wrong movie.
Unfortunately, the hilarious name-changing incident is by far the most interesting thing about Revenge...Renaissance...Whatever, as the story takes a simplistic approach to both storytelling and character design. The film does come to us from Mineo, a veteran actor but first-time director, so that is hardly a surprise. However, that means that scenes are forced together in configurations that either feel totally sporadic (in a bad way) or derivative of everything that came before it. More confusing is the massive influx of the English language into what I thought was going to be a 100% foreign language flick. Hindsight shows that Foo, raised in England, was probably more comfortable speaking his usual language than the local dialect, but the result is a number of Thai actors whose skills don't stack up in comparison. When they're speaking Thai and I can read everything in the unusually clean subtitles, everything is fine. But when they arbitrarily switch to English, most of them simply cannot pronounce certain words or even convey emotion, and so their dialogue sounds more like Stephen Hawking's chair than a living human being. It's not just relevant to the Thai actors, but the French ones as well; the English of both Ducey and Cohen is atrocious to say the least, and Mineo would have been better off casting some desperate-for-work American or British actors for all the work his people do to mangle the English language.

A knee to the gut: effective, but not very exciting.
The fight scenes are similarly disruptive. While there are a few moments that manage to impress the fight fan in me, Mineo does not seem to have the talent as a director to handle any more than the few minutes of excitement Revenge delivers. Foo is obviously a talented martial artist, and the proof lies in those scenes where we actually get to see him perform amazing feats that normal men could only dream of pulling off. But the moments are far too fleeting, just beginning to gain traction when everything suddenly stops or something interrupts the action. Mineo also commits the cardinal sin of following action too closely with the camera, muddying the waters and preventing the viewer from discerning what is happening.

Yeah, this scene actually happens.
The situations and characters are also just a bit too strange to take seriously. Among the antagonists that include crooked cops and gangs of young men, one group that stands out is an all-girl gang whom the police use to cover up their dirty work. In spirit that would be fine, but the gang includes women tarted up as J-idols, psychotic little girls and even a heavily-muscled cross-dresser. That they take a central role in the film's events and are not just a bit diversion detracts from the other, more grounded characters, ultimately coming to the point where the whole thing goes from vague disappointment to "What were they thinking?" But even they have nothing on the awful character archetypes, whether they're a cheap reincarnation of Mr. Miyagi (Kowich Wathana) or a nurse with a heart of gold (Aphiradi Phawaphutanon). Most of these secondary characters are played by folks who have no prior professional acting experience, and it really shows. John Foo is fine, albeit unable to mask the fact that Manit can speak English better than the characters who supposedly raised him. But major characters in Ducey and Cohen are so bad, both in planning and execution, that you can't help but feel that the director just owed them a favor. Cohen's alcoholic boxer is merely unexplored, though his dialogue is so jumbled and incoherent that more exposure might not have actually done anything of value. But Ducey's journalist Clara is the worst type of female character in any film, an idiotic, naive waif who seems to think that - despite walking around the dark alleys of the city in cutoff jean shorts - she is immune to harm. The result is a damsel constantly in distress, and after a while we just don't care whether she lives or dies. Throw in the most uncomfortably unerotic sex scene ever (and the character's response afterward), and she officially brings nothing good to the cinematic table.

Clara finds herself in this position a lot.
Bangkok Revenge (since that's what the sign outside called it, I'll stick with that) is a reminder that not every martial arts film can be as original, competent or fun as The Raid. This was one of the most derivative, un-fun movies I've seen in quite a while, making travesties like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and Snow White and the Huntsman look like perfect gems in comparison. Only the fact that it's playing in 22 theaters right now will prevent it from hitting the year's worst list (where in the idea of fairness I won't include releases of fewer than 300 theaters). But this isn't even a movie where those people who need a martial arts hit should apply. How this film, among what I'm sure is a worthy selection of foreign titles, garnered an American release I'm not sure. But we would all feel a little better if they had just decided to leave this one at home.

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