Having watched an inordinate amount of art films over the past week, I thought I'd balance it out with some mindless action film entertainment. Hence I watched the first two installments of Tom Cruise's franchise series Mission: Impossible and then watched The Transporter. I'd never seen these before and, tired of hearing people tell me I was a film snob, I thought, OK, I'll check 'em out. Turns out, I wasn't missing anything.
The first MI was fairly tolerable - the location shoots in Prague and London were enjoyable sightseeing, Emmanuel Beart is always great sightseeing, and the helicopter-in-Chunnel finale was pretty imaginative - though far from worth the hundreds of millions of dollars in production costs (and Cruise's salary). But MI:2 was Mission Unwatchable, easily the most numbingly braindead excuse for overblown CGI special effects and pointless vehicular chase sequences ever filmed.
Wooed Away: A Lament
And MI:2 was another nail in the coffin for the career of director John Woo, the ex-pat Hong Kong action auteur who used to be my hero when he was making such heroic bloodshed classics as The Killer, Hard-Boiled, A Better Tomorrow I and II, Bullet in the Head and Once a Thief. But ever since he came to Hollywood, Woo has been a bust; with the possible exception of Face/Off and Broken Arrow - tolerable entertainments, nothing more - his Western years have been notably undistinguished. Sure, he gets the big name, big budget projects, but where's the charisma, style or emotion? Where's the acting and character bonding that distinguished his Hong Kong films? It's not there; it's all Hollywood surface, with no artistic merit. He's fallen for the American Cineplex Syndrome of loud pyrotechnics, car crashes and CGI special effects, crossing the ocean from Hong Kong to Hollywood armed only with the icing on his cake - the action set pieces, the now-cliche trick of having actors fly through the air in slo-mo with two-guns blazing - but left the cake of substance that marked his Chinese films behind. Namely, a reason to care. Admittedly Tom Cruise is no Chow Yun-Fat or Tony Leung or even Simon Yam. But there's nothing new in Woo; like distinguished ex-pat British writers who came to Hollywood to seek fortune (after they already had the fame), Woo looks like a just another guy who's whored himself to the lure of filthy lucre. I wish he'd go back to Hong Kong and revive his artistic career.
Much Ado About Nothing: Thandie Newton
I started getting irritated with MI:2 right from the beginning. First off, Thandie Newton. Not a major star in my esteem, and far from a hottie - she's so not all that. And bony to boot! Then the segment where Cruise is supposed to woo Thandie by flashing that famous grin and then, in perhaps the most ridiculous scene in the entire movie, engaging in a flirtatious high-speed chase with her in which they basically smash up two fancy sports cars worth at least $100,000 grand and end up dangling off a cliff. The result, of course, is that they quickly make post-crash trauma love and the inevitable "I've only known you for one night but I'll now take a bullet for you my love" commitment. Bollocks! I'm sorry, but I'm still thinking about how they totally wasted those two cars during their foreplay. No way I'd smash up my Honda Civic to get down with Thandie Newton. I wouldn't even risk scratching my bicycle for her. A totally pointless scene shamelessly thrown in for the cineplex crowd.
Of course the finale with Tom riding on his motorcycle was written into the film so that Tom would look cool riding on a motorcycle. And it goes on for WAY too long. Lame, lame, lame!
The Rules of the Game
The Transporter had three things going for it - Shu Qi (my current Asian Film Star Obsession), Jason Statham (of Guy Ritchie's stylish Brit gangster films Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), and director Corey Yuen (noted Hong Kong action director/choreographer) - but it also was produced by Luc Besson, the overrated French director of such films as The Fifth Element and Leon/The Professional (why is this film so popular?), which is a bad sign. I liked Besson's Subway (1985) and La Femme Nikita (1990), but everything since has been drek. (OK, he did produce Jet Li's Kiss of the Dragon in 2001, which was great - but he was also responsible for the lame script, which could have been written by the kids of Whitney High.)
In The Transporter, Jason Statham's character Frank Martin is a "Transporter," an amoral smuggler who transports packages both inanimate and animate (Shu Qi), no questions asked. He likes things simple and hates it when people deviate from the contract. And he lives, almost anal-compulsively, by rules. He's ex-military, so that makes sense in a "Sir! No Sir!" sort of way. The rules are simple:
Rule Number 1: Never change the deal
Rule Number 2: No names
Rule Number 3: Never open the package
However, no sooner does Luc Besson establish the semblance of a plot than he loses interest and has Frank break the rules carelessly, almost on a whim, which throws all plausibility out the window from this point on. Frank Martin, Mr. Punctual, who in an earlier scene refuses to transport four bank robbers from a heist when only three were agreed to in the contract, forcing the leader to shoot the extra human baggage (Rule No. 1 - "Never change the deal"), gets a flat and when he opens his trunk to get the spare out, can't help but open the wriggling package that contains Shu Qi. He thus quickly breaks Rule No. 3 for no apparent reason. Implausible? Mais oui! He then goes on to break the other rules, and why not, since the plausible part of the plot has been tossed with the introduction of the girl.
The Transporter enjoys Chinese carry-out
Naturally, after the girl is set free, she decides to stay with the Transporter because, you know, attractive people always fall for each other and, well, it makes the plot that much easier, doesn't it? When the Transporter's home is blown up asa result of him shielding the girl, she makes it up to him by dropping trou and doing the nasty by means of apology. Which is all fine and dandy, except sex - even sex with Shu Qi - comes up short as a replacement for a seaside French villa and Mercedes Benz. (And yes, I'm still thinking about the car repair bill it cost Tom Cruise for his tryst with bony Thandie Newton!) It just doesn't add up. Of course the girl falls in love with the Transporter. That's just the Action Man Way.
Shu Qi offers an apology no man can turn down
So after watching three mindless "films" that were no more than action set pieces framed by bare-minimum narratives, bargain-bin McGuffins, and wafer-thin character developments, I watched a Japanese art film, The Hidden Blade (Kakushi Ken Oni No Tsume), by director Yoji Yamada (The Twilight Samurai). It's a samurai film that actually fights against type and avoids being an action film. In fact, there are only two fight scenes in the entire film and they are far from gratuitous. The hero actually admits that he has never killed a man with his sword and that a true samurai avoids conflict and killing. This is a character study film, populated by characters as deep and fleshy as the rolls of fat around Dick Cheney's chin(s). As Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter so aptly put it, it is "a portrait of goodness and virtue that is neither cynical nor contrived."
In other words, unlike the disposable, cynical and contrived action flicks I had watched all week, this had a real story and plausible characters that stayed with you long after the final credits. I've learned from my mistakes; no more mindless entertainment. It's the equivalent of quick-fix junk food. I want a value meal. Which brings me to Roger Ebert's great commentary about action films versus talky films.
Action Is Traction
As Roger Ebert, writing about the third franchise installment, MI: III, but with words applicable to Hollywood Action Films In General, observed:
Either you want to see mindless action and computer-generated sequences executed with breakneck speed and technical precision, or you do not. I am getting to the point where I don't much care. There is a theory that action is exciting and dialogue is boring. My theory is that variety is exciting and sameness is boring. Modern high-tech action sequences are just the same damn thing over and over again: high-speed chases, desperate gun battles, all possible modes of transportation, falls from high places, deadly deadlines, exotic locations and characters who hardly ever say anything interesting.
Right on, Roger! The Word is mightier than The Sword.
P.S.: Not all Tom Cruise movies are unwatchable. There are a handful worth seeing, but only a handful, and, yes, that means you can count them on just one hand. Let's hope the filthy lucre Tomcat gets from his crap films satisfies him enough to seek out more good roles like these below:
1. Risky Business
3. Rain Man
4. Minority Report
5. Eyes Wide Shut