Painfully bleak

Kirk Wong's new film is both deeply funny and unmistakably dark

Hong Kong director Kirk Wong (credited here as Che-Kirk Wong) is the latest defector from the troubled H.K. film industry. Until now, he has been best known in the United States for his Jackie Chan film Crime Story, which played art houses before being picked up for wider release by Miramax--who subsequently took the film straight to video in a badly dubbed cut.

With his first American production, The Big Hit, Wong has surprisingly chosen to make a comedy. Surprisingly because the one thing Wong has always seemed to lack is a light touch. In fact, Chan--always image-conscious and afraid that his film's relentlessly dark tone might alienate his fans--took over Crime Story from Wong and goosed it up with more traditional Chan action shtick.

As it turns out, The Big Hit manages the seemingly impossible task of being very funny indeed and being as dark as anything Wong has ever made. This is an almost painfully bleak comedy that makes you squirm in the manner of The Out-of-Towners.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Melvin Smiley, who is a brilliant hit man and a total schmo. He wants so desperately to be liked that no one can resist walking all over him. Both his fiancee (Christina Applegate) and his mistress (Lela Rochon) plunder his bank account--the first to help out her good-for-nothing parents (Elliott Gould and Lainie Kazan), the second to finance an escape with her real boyfriend (David Usher). He is even apologetic to a snotty video-store clerk (Danny Smith) who is constantly harassing him about an overdue copy of King Kong Lives.

But his worst exploiters are his subordinates, led by Cisco (Lou Diamond Phillips). While Melvin goes charging in to kill a mobster and his score of bodyguards, the other guys are standing around shooting the breeze, while claiming to Melvin that they're holding off the other side's reinforcements.

Melvin is loyal to Paris (Avery Brooks), his boss, but he agrees to help Cisco out on an unauthorized moonlighting caper. Cisco is planning to kidnap Keiko (newcomer China Chow, in an incredibly appealing performance), the spoiled daughter of electronics magnate Jiro Nishi (Sab Shimono).

But the arrogant Cisco, who insists the snatch is a sure thing, is, as usual, wrong. Not only is Nishi bankrupt--he has blown his fortune on a big-budget movie vehicle for himself, Taste the Golden Spray--but Keiko turns out to be Paris' goddaughter.

When Paris calls on Cisco to find the perpetrator of this outrage, you can guess whom Cisco is going to set up as the villain: Melvin.

There are lots of traditional farce elements at play here: The interaction between ruthless gangsters and middle-class citizens who don't realize what's going on has been the basis of dozens of comedies going back at least as far as Damon Runyon's A Slight Case of Murder.

At the same time, the extent of Melvin's abuse at the hands of virtually everyone in the film is enough to make you cringe. You keep waiting for him to blow up and get revenge, but he never does. To the very last, he is the world's nicest guy.

Despite the generally comic content, you can spot elements of Wong's earlier work here. Several of the action scenes are dazzlingly directed, though in a style that recalls the film's executive producer John Woo more than Wong himself.

Still, it would be wrong to suggest that the film's combination of a comic tone with a viciously pessimistic worldview is entirely successful. This is never more apparent than in Phillips' scenery-chewing performance. Cisco is so absolutely horrible that it's hard to imagine an adequate punishment for him in the end; the resolution here doesn't really do justice to his malevolence.

Far more flamboyant than he's ever been before, Phillips comes across like a combination of Anthony Wong (the Hong Kong madman specialist who has worked with the director repeatedly) and the John Turturro character in another current Big film, the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski.

Indeed, there are other signs that Wong is under the sway of the Coens here: For instance, it's a small point, but a minor character is named Sid Mussberger, after Paul Newman's part in The Hudsucker Proxy. But he doesn't entirely succeed. (Of course, the same is true of the Coens.) When the Coens employ truly over-the-top characters, as in Hudsucker, Lebowski, and Barton Fink, their visual and narrative style is usually just as unreal.

But Wong's style in The Big Hit is, in comparison, realistic. He creates a milieu insufficiently cartoonish for a character like Cisco.

The Big Hit.
Directed by Che-Kirk Wong. Written by Ben Ramsey. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Lou Diamond Phillips, China Chow, Christina Applegate, Avery Brooks, Lela Rochon, Elliott Gould, Lainie Kazan, Bokeem Woodbine, Antonio Sabato Jr., and Sab Shimono. Opens Friday.

 
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