It doesn't bother me that the post-"Matrix" new wave of Hong Kong-influenced Hollywood action films have abandoned any pretense of coherent storytelling and now treat plot exactly the way porn movies do -- as a device to get from one bang to the next. Action cinema has been moving in that direction for some time, driven by commercials, music videos and video games. And I suppose that you could argue that it's more honest: No one will give a crap, for example, about the vague and incomprehensible characters played by Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu in the new "Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever."
What actually bothers me -- what may reveal me to be a pretentious aging aesthete unable to adjust to the new era of non-narrative post-whatever -- is the music. You know what I'm talking about: That stomped-by-robots electronica video-game soundtrack that refuses to stop, no matter what the context. You're sitting there watching any old scene in "Ballistic" -- a 6-year-old getting off a plane, a car driving down a deserted street, whatever -- and the soundtrack is all relentless wicky-wacky-humpa-thumpa, complete with moaning female vocals. You get to the point where you can't tell if you're in a movie theater or some nightclub full of leather pants, hair gel and Argentine women who won't talk to you.
Set to that soundtrack, most of "Ballistic" involves the mysterious Agent Sever (Liu), for unexplained reasons, machine-gunning cops by the score, destroying the Vancouver public library and blowing up boxcars. The director known as Kaos (that's the nom de boom of Thai-born Wych Kaosayananda) loves exploding boxcars. A lot of exploding boxcars. Some railroad was able to get rid of a whole bunch of outdated rolling stock here; the tax consequences must have been significant. Whoomp, whoomp, whoomp, whoomp.
The other part of "Ballistic" features the slightly less mysterious Agent Ecks (Banderas) delivering a smoldering glare, inhaling Marlboros and blowing people away. During all the violence, the techno soundtrack is generally appropriate; perhaps it was just too much trouble to turn it off during the non-boxcar scenes.
Kaos -- at least his name has vowels, unlike that of McG, who directed the Hong Kong-influenced "Charlie's Angels" -- can do two things, or maybe two and a half. He creates cool deep-focus shots in the middle of his action sequences, although the sequences as a whole are confusing and hard to follow. He also rips off little snippets of film noir: a moody unshaven guy with a turned-up collar and fedora flicking away a cigarette. And his half-a-thing is his compulsive use of slo-mo shots, in any scene and for no particular reason. The cigarette flick, the inverted car sailing through the air, Agent Sever leaping off an exploding boxcar -- it all slows way the hell down, possibly to seem more momentous.
"Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever" sure sounds like a title borrowed from a video game or comic book (and in fact it is a video game, contrary to what I originally wrote here). Nintendo junkies might have better luck with the story than I did: All I could really make out is that Banderas plays Ecks as a cheerful caricature of the wounded noir hero, smoking and drinking in a dark tavern to soothe the wounds left behind by his dead wife (Talisa Soto). Except that wifey may not be dead after all but hooked up with some sinister double-agent type named Gant (Gregg Henry), who's smuggling some super-secret microscopic death gizmo into the country in the most evil way possible.
With his WASPy Mount Rushmore head virtually reeking of mendacity, corruption and a Yale education, Henry provides the most amusing of this movie's overstylized performances. Plus he has a perfectly lovely home overlooking the water: West Coast casual meets Japanese formal. Kaos and his production team do make pretty good use of Vancouver, which is quite an attractive city when it isn't exploding.
Liu's long, lean form is on screen a lot, but she's pretty much just her own stunt double; I'd be surprised if she has 60 seconds of dialogue in the whole picture. (Mind you, the screenplay by Peter M. Lenkov and Alan B. McElroy would probably fit on a matchbook, in the spaces around that pirate from the art-by-mail school.)
Whoever Sever is -- a Chinese orphan girl trained to kill, kill, kill? A "disaffected" DIA agent? -- she's pissed at the world and seeking revenge for unknown offenses. Sever does meet up with Ecks, but the two only do battle in two scenes before they team up against the bad guy. Clearly "Ecks and Sever Blow Up Boxcars and Kick Everybody's Ass" was way too long for theater marquees.
Kaos, the screenwriters and the actors occasionally seem to forget even the tiny handful of plot points that have been established, such as the names of the characters. Looking at the pile of pills Ecks inhales, a fellow agent, who presumably knows him, quips, "Is that why they call you Ecks?" Um, no -- Ecks is his name. (Although the question of whether his first name is Jeremy or Jeremiah depends on who's talking to him.)
No one involved with "Ballistic" is any too clear on the United States of America and its boundaries, either. What's with the smirking federal agent boasting an East End Cockney accent (played by Ray Park of "X-Men")? Is the CIA recruiting thugs off third-division English soccer teams? And how come all these high-ranking American spooks are bustin' heads and takin' names in Vancouver, anyway? I know Canada is kind of like the 51st state, but at least in the narrow, legalistic sense it isn't American soil.
All these complaints are irrelevant, of course. As far as random useless action movies go, I've seen worse. "Ballistic" will undoubtedly do decent business for a few weeks. But to compare a director like Kaos to Hong Kong action kings like John Woo or Tsui Hark ("Once Upon a Time in China" and the "Swordsman" series), who always believe in their story and characters no matter how outlandish they may be, is like comparing the director of "Leprechaun in the Hood" to Hitchcock. (Hey, they both made English-language thrillers.) Just because a guy is Asian and likes to blow up boxcars doesn't make him a cinema revolutionary. This too, like other stupid Hollywood trends, shall pass.