'Bangkok Dangerous': Thai Die, By Kurt Loder

Nicolas Cage makes another curious career choice.

Top-flight international assassins are all pretty much the same: grim of lip, dead of eye, armed to the teeth. They move through a world of steely-blue light and more-than-average rainfall, and they have souls of deepest noir, trusting no one, needing no one. The hitmaster played by in "Bangkok Dangerous" doesn't even need a last name. Just call him Joe. Or maybe — since he pointedly observes that "No one knows who I am" — don't.

Like all such lethally omnicompetent characters, Joe is tops in his field. ("The Russians swear by him," says a sub-thug admiringly.) But he wants to quit the game — he knows it's time, before he becomes a target himself. So he accepts one last, lucrative commission: eliminating a quartet of bothersome rivals for a murderous Bangkok crime boss. I don't think it diminishes Joe's undoubted talent for termination to suggest that luck — or maybe just the script's oblivious disdain for logic — plays a large part in his deadly undertakings. For example, one of his designated victims is taking a nighttime swim in a small garden pool, watched over by a bodyguard. How likely is it that Joe would be able to slip into the pool himself, accost his target, pull him down underwater and hold him there until he drowns — without Joe drowning himself? And then, of course, he has to make an unavoidably sloshy getaway unspotted. Which he does. That's how good Joe is.

Cage demonstrates that Joe is a cold, unfeeling killing machine by dispensing with pretty much all but one of the facial expressions that actors traditionally find useful in creating characters. For such a total pro, though, this master assassin is surprisingly undiscriminating about the help he hires. When he sees a street hustler named Kong (Shahkrit Yamnarm) relieving a tourist of his wallet, he immediately brings this complete stranger onboard as his trusty assistant. Why? Says Joe, "Maybe it's because — and this is strange — when I looked in his eyes, I saw myself." Stranger than that, even, is a bit of medical edification we're given after Kong gets stomped by some bad guys: "There's a beer in the refrigerator," Joe tells his battered sidekick sagely. "It'll take down the swelling."

We can see that Joe is a man with a Claymore mine where his heart should be; and yet a single chance encounter with a beautiful deaf-mute pharmacy clerk named Fon (the exquisite Charlie Young) turns him instantly into a puddle of lovelorn goo. We know that she's won his Claymore because it is here that Cage brings a second facial expression into play. (He also brings it with him on a tea-sipping visit to the house of Fon's mom — one of the movie's sillier scenes, which is saying something.)

I won't even go into the elephants. Well, yes I will. Joe is something of an elephant magnet — they sidle up to him in a colorful marketplace, looking for a snack; they sway bashfully on the other side of a pond he's peering into. The movie informs us that elephants are symbols of luck in Thai culture — good luck when their trunks are raised high, bad luck when they're pointing down. Joe has an elephant print hanging on a wall in his sleek hideaway apartment, and Kong notes that its trunk is dangling downward. A little later, when bad luck starts piling up, Joe returns to the print and realizes what has to be done. After a moment of contemplation, he reaches out, very carefully, and turns it upside down. There.

"Bangkok Dangerous" is an English-language remake of a 1999 movie of the same name by the same directors, the Hong Kong sibling team of Danny and Oxide Pang ("The Eye"). The movie has all the raucous death and destruction an action fan might want, but it's a grainy, glum picture, and so generic that you wonder what several of the characters are doing walking around when you could swear that they — or genre stereotypes very much like them — were already blown away in some previous action exercise. What Cage — such a fine actor when the mood's upon him — is doing wasting his time in listless junk like this is anybody's guess. Anyone who's seen him in such memorable films as "Leaving Las Vegas," "Matchstick Men" and "The Weather Man" has to be baffled. Why, why? Has somebody installed a Claymore where his brain used to be?

Check out Kurt Loder's review of "Surfer Dude."

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