Mission: Impossible 2

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by John Woo

With Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton, and Ving Rhames.

Shanghai Noon

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Tom Dey

With Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Lucy Liu, Brandon Merrill, and Roger Yuan.

By Sergio Barreto

Memorial Day is an all-American holiday, but lovers of Hong Kong movies had special reason to celebrate this year. The box-office champion that weekend was Mission: Impossible 2, directed by John Woo, and the second runner-up was Shanghai Noon, starring Jackie Chan. Woo, the world’s preeminent director of action cinema, was working with a $100 million budget, and Chan was following up his previous multiplex hit, Rush Hour (1998). Unfortunately, Hollywood has always treated world cinema as if it simply doesn’t matter, unless there’s a possibility of turning a profit by remaking a successful foreign film or importing foreign talent. Woo and Chan may have cracked the Hollywood movie market, but their latest efforts are much different from and inferior to the Hong Kong films that got them noticed in the first place.

Woo made his directorial debut with The Young Dragons (1973) and went on to direct 12 comedies and martial-arts period pieces in as many years. Asian audiences lined up for his early films, but after a commercial decline that culminated in Run Tiger Run (1985), Woo realized it was time for a change of pace. A Better Tomorrow (1986), with its story of two brothers on opposite sides of the law, turned out to be a watershed in Asian action cinema. Eastern audiences had always shunned films with gunplay; they considered such conflicts crass compared to the martial arts, which require years of training and discipline. Woo changed all that by portraying marksmanship as a skill that requires just as much grace and by orchestrating a slow-motion, blood-spattered dance of death, the like of which hadn’t been seen since Sam Peckinpah.

At the same time he revealed his Christian upbringing by emphasizing the characters’ bitterness and ambivalence toward their brutal professions and by meting out a crushing retribution not only to them but to practically everyone they touched. The juxtaposition of violence and pious melodrama made the film a huge hit and ushered in what Asian film enthusiasts call the “Heroic Bloodshed” era in Hong Kong’s gangster dramas. The best of these films were Woo’s: The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990), Hard-Boiled (1992). They all recycled the characters and themes of A Better Tomorrow, but Woo’s camera work and editing approached the virtuosic and his sense of macho melodrama grew increasingly delirious.

Woo was too willing to overlook gaps in logic and believability, and his professed ideal of nonviolence didn’t seem to square with his aesthetically striking depictions of carnage, but his ever-evolving craft made him an action auteur without peer. His films were too operatic for U.S. multiplexes but too stylish and personal to be ignored; by the late 80s they started popping up at the edgier video outlets and at American film festivals and art houses (the Film Center was an early advocate of Woo and Chan both). Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs (1992), borrowed heavily from Woo’s Heroic Bloodshed oeuvre with its gun fetishism, its brutal homoeroticism, its macho criminals fashioning their own moral code–even the heroes’ matching black suits.

Tarantino sang Woo’s praises in the press, and Universal signed Woo to direct his first Hollywood film, the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target (1993). The results were disappointing. Woo couldn’t negotiate the American studio system: Hard-Boiled, which featured some of Woo’s most impressive stunts, had taken 123 days to shoot, yet Hard Target had to be filmed in 65. Universal imposed a limit on the body count so the film could qualify for an R rating and hired longtime Woo admirer Sam Raimi to oversee the production (and take over the director’s seat if necessary). After the MPAA slapped the film with an NC-17, Woo was sent back to the editing room again and again, and Universal took over the final cut.

Face/Off (1997) seems closer to Woo’s peculiar vision, and the film earned more than $300 million worldwide. Woo references started popping up everywhere: his Heroic Bloodshed motifs colored films as disparate as Blade, Lethal Weapon 4, and Romeo Must Die, and his hyperkinetic style was incorporated into everything from Con Air to The Matrix.

Yet Mission: Impossible 2 seems less like a Woo film than an unofficial entry in the James Bond series: a glamorous, amoral adventure involving a secret-agent stud, a dangerous beauty, high-tech gadgetry, upscale settings, and exotic foreign locales. Aside from the fancy camera work, Woo’s themes and stylistic signature are nowhere to be found. Tom Cruise, who coproduced the film, spoke highly of Woo in the press, but the two reportedly clashed during production, and Cruise got the final cut. Everything in the film revolves around his utter fabulousness: CIA operative Ethan Hunt can handle any weapon or vehicle, and he inspires a love so profound that it compels a professional art thief (Thandie Newton) to risk her life for him. During the climax Hunt suddenly realizes that he knows martial arts–a skill he didn’t seem to possess in the first Mission: Impossible–and proceeds to beat his enemies to a pulp in slow motion.

It’s hard to generate suspense when the audience has no reason to believe a character is ever in danger. The Bond films compensate with a generous serving of campy, self-deprecating humor; the poker-faced Cruise and company try to tart things up with a romantic triangle involving him, Newton, and her former lover. Yet Woo knows nothing about romance: his Heroic Bloodshed characters always had girlfriends, but they were there to argue against the protagonist’s self-destructive ways or to get killed as punishment for his transgressions. Thanks to Woo’s visual flair, Mission: Impossible 2 is more engaging than its predecessor, not to mention your average summer product. But Hollywood is perfectly capable of producing humdrum action fare on its own.

Like Woo, Jackie Chan had been entertaining Hong Kong audiences for two decades before America started paying attention. A child actor who worked his way up to stunt choreographer, Chan contributed to Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973), the film that made kung fu a worldwide phenomenon. He churned out two or three martial-arts films a year and made his directorial debut in 1977. Martial-arts purists hissed at his unorthodox style, but Chan emphasized his preference for “reel” kung fu over “real” kung fu, mixing northern- and southern-style Shaolin kung fu, tae kwon do, hapkido, and whatever else struck his fancy to fashion moves that looked good on-screen. In contrast to Bruce Lee’s rawness, Chan created bloodless, cartoonish violence, the plot secondary to his slapstick, dazzling acrobatics, and insane, near balletic stunts.

Chan remained popular in Asia throughout the 80s and 90s, as he began to favor contemporary action films over kung fu period pieces. Except for the popular Cannonball Run comedies, he was an unknown quantity to the American mainstream. But as Hong Kong cinema infiltrated fringe video outlets and late-night cable, Chan developed a cult following, and New Line Cinema released an English-dubbed Rumble in the Bronx (1996). Chan’s version of the Bronx included only a handful of blacks and featured mountains in the background (it was shot in Vancouver), yet the film debuted at number one during a weak box-office season. Subsequent releases failed to cross over, so New Line decided to cast him in an American film alongside an American comedian.

The result was Rush Hour, in which Chan plays a mild-mannered Chinese policeman teaming up with a brash LAPD officer (Chris Tucker) to rescue the kidnapped daughter of the Chinese consul. Instead of trying to close the cultural gap, the film exploited it for laughs. For better or worse, it marked the end of an era for Chan; it actually had a plot, which dragged down the pace, and his interaction with a physically inept partner reduced the screen time allotted for his physical exploits. He was, after all, 44 years old, but the high-flying stunts and impossibly frenetic pacing of his Asian films were severely curtailed.

By that time Hong Kong action stars were eager to cross over. Jet Li appeared in Lethal Weapon 4, Michelle Yeoh in the James Bond entry Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Americans had lost interest in action warhorses like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Van Damme, and Hollywood needed new talent. All it had to do was keep coming up with explanations for all these Hong Kong cops and mobsters showing up in the U.S.

Shanghai Noon, slapped together by first-time director Tom Dey, repeats the formula of Rush Hour to lesser effect: this time Chan is a Chinese imperial bodyguard sent to the Old West to retrieve a kidnapped princess, and his partner is Owen Wilson (Bottle Rocket), who looks and sounds as if he wandered in from a stoner comedy being shot on the next lot. There’s also a Native American woman who Chan marries after smoking too many native herbs, and numerous big, stupid cowboys whose function is to gape at Chan, utter lines like “What the hell is that?,” and get their asses kicked. Chan’s Hong Kong films were equally cheesy, but one seldom had time to notice with the people and objects flying across the screen. The stunts in Shanghai Noon are tame by comparison, and the film’s ham-handed social content (the villain has enslaved hundreds of Chinese to work his mine) would have been a needless distraction to the maniacal Chan of old.

Despite its big opening weekend, Shanghai Noon is fading fast and will probably gross far less than Rush Hour. If this trend continues, this unique combination of comedian and human dynamo may become no more than an amiable, mildly popular ethnic cartoon. When Chan’s imperial guard utters a few lines about how he and the other Asian immigrants must abandon the old ways and adapt to the mores of America, one can almost see him and John Woo leaving their art behind to become two more Hollywood players. “This is not the East, it’s the West,” the guard points out. “The sun doesn’t rise here, it sets here.”