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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Every day in my in-box, I receive a calendar page that has some kind of puzzle or word game on it. My favorites are the ones that take the title of a movie that's been translated into some other language and then translated back into English. (The point is to guess which movies have had their titles twisted almost beyond recognition.) Watching Bangkok Dangerous is kind of like doing one of those puzzles. It is based on an Asian action picture that was most likely inspired by American action cinema. It is also quite often just as incomprehensible as the mangled movie titles on that puzzle page.

Nicolas Cage plays Joe (just Joe), a hitman sent to Bangkok to carry out four assassinations. Joe, of course, is ready to quit the business and plans this as his last job ever! While there, he hires a local errand boy named Kong (Shakrit Yamnarm) and, after getting shot during a nearly-botched hit, falls for the pretty deaf pharmacy worker who helps him find the Neosporin. Whereas he's cool as a cucumber looking through the scope of an assault rifle, Joe is exactly the opposite around women. He turns into a shy, awkward nerd.

Somehow, it seems that in every movie about a hitman, one of several things has to happen: 1.) the hitman realizes that he's suddenly become the target; 2.) he discovers that his latest hit is supposed to be someone he knows and/or has an ethical problem killing; or 3.) the people who hired the hitman decide they want him dead. All these things - or variations of them - happen in Bangkok Dangerous.

There's really nothing original here, and that's the major problem. I've seen a fair number of Asian action and horror films. They differ from American pictures in that they are generally more concerned with style and imagery than with plot and character development. Truth be told, a lot of them are interesting/entertaining for that very reason; they have an atmosphere all their own. American audiences tend to prefer more traditional plots, and so when these Asian movies are remade, Hollywood tries to sandwich in more of a story…but not too much of one because they also want to "honor" the spirit of whatever they're remaking. What we here in the States usually end up with, then, are movies that never quite work on either level. The need for a clearly-delineated plot detracts from the ambiance, and the desire to retain the ambiance detracts from basic storytelling. It's a classic Catch-22. Just think of all the mediocre (or worse) Asian remakes we've seen in the past few years: The Eye, The Grudge, The Messengers, Pulse, Dark Water. With the exception of The Ring and The Departed - both of which cemented the story and then layered the style on top of it - they've all suffered this exact problem.

There are some occasionally interesting moments, such as the manner in which Joe's girlfriend discovers what he does for a living. The scene might have been more than just a clever conceit had Bangkok Dangerous bothered to develop their relationship a little more. Joe and the girl meet and apparently experience love at first sight. Or, more likely, experience love at first sight because the screenplay isn't interested in fleshing out whatever supposedly attracts them to each other. Most movie hitmen also have hearts of gold, and Joe is no different. The idea that he could simultaneously be a cold-blooded killer as well as a lovestruck dweeb is potentially compelling, but Nicolas Cage never finds a way to bring those two halves of the character together. It often seems like he's playing two totally different people. Cage also seems incredibly bored with the role, as though he's merely walking through the film. Normally such an electric performer, it's nothing short of depressing to see him so muted in this case.

The action scenes don't fare much better. There is a lot of gunplay and a lot of weapon fetishism, but little to involve us in what's happening. The people Joe is assigned to kill are just barely introduced. The same goes for his employers. Without knowing exactly what the stakes are, it's pretty much impossible to care about the action when it does arrive (in between the painfully long romantic interludes). Boat chases can be great, as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and some of the James Bond movies have proven. The one here can find nothing new to do, so we get a lazier, less effective version of something we've already seen dozens of times.

Bangkok Dangerous is consequently something of a chore to sit through. At times, I had to force myself to pay attention and to stop thinking about other things. Having audience members contemplating what they're going to have for dinner or what they're going to watch on TV tonight is the kiss of death for an action movie. Even a substandard one should, hypothetically, keep your attention merely by virtue of all the mayhem on screen. Not this one. Turns out that Bangkok isn't dangerous so much as really, really boring.

( 1/2 out of four)

Bangkok Dangerous is rated R for violence, language and some sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.

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