This review was published in Issue 23 ofAsian Cult Cinema
You don't change Chinatown... it changes you.
Most Western audiences are familiar with Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-Fat through his many roles as the quintessential gun-toting gangster, first seen in "A Better Tomorrow". However, in his native Hong Kong, his television and film acting portfolio encompassed a number of genres that included dramas (such as his Best Actor Award-winning role in "All About Ah-Long"), romantic comedies ("An Autumn's Tale"), new genres ("God of Gamblers", the film that ignited the dou san genre) and the more familiar 'heroic bloodshed' genre ("Full Contact"). Chow's diverse repertoire of roles is a testament to his dramatic range, a claim that very few of the former Colony's actors could match (for example, Jackie Chan has never strayed from his action-comedy roots).
In 1998, Chow made his stateside debut in "The Replacement Killers". Despite the film's flaws, namely a minimalist plot devoid of any emotion and some derivative action sequences, it provided a showcase for Chow's remarkable screen presence, exuding both confidence and charisma. Now, approximately one year later, Chow's second foray in North American films, "The Corruptor", has thrust him into the Hollywood limelight once again. Unfortunately, Chow is once again denied a vehicle worthy of his talent with a less than spectacular and painfully mediocre movie.
It's easy to overestimate worth. Don't overestimate your own.
This time around, Chow plays NYPD detective Nick Chen, the decorated leader of the city's Asian Gang Unit. And though Chow is a role model for the Chinese community and exemplifies the positive strides being made by the police in promoting minorities, he is no stranger to the vices that plague the NYPD. In addition to penchants for gambling and prostitutes, Nick is in the pocket of local Triad leader Henry Lee (Ric Young), who is partially responsible for Nick's meteoric rise through the force. Through their alliance, Lee is able to keep rival criminal organizations from forming a beachhead in Chinatown, while Nick is able to make career-advancing busts.
You know Chinese don't trust whites or cops... and you give me a white cop!
In comes the rookie, Danny Wallace (Mark Wahlberg of "The Big Hit"), a white cop who specifically requests to be in Nick's unit. Of course, like in many mixed-race partnerships in movies (witness "Rush Hour"), there is a lot of initial tension between Nick and Danny. While Danny tries to prove his worth in a predominantly Asian unit, Nick refuses to take him seriously, with the firm belief that his new charge is a mere wannabe fascinated with all things Chinese-- a case of 'yellow fever'.
He's worse than white... he's green!
Meanwhile, a new war has broken out in the streets of Chinatown, with its principal players being the established Triads and the newly arrived Fukienese Dragons. With bombs exploding in the streets and bodies winding up in dumpsters, Nick's unit is brought in to quell the bloodshed. Of course, the investigation is also serving the interests of Lee, who uses his special relationship with Nick to advance his own cause and to get Danny on the payroll. However, as the investigation deepens, eventually pointing inwards and involving the FBI, Nick and Danny must reevaluate their conflicting loyalties to the NYPD, the Triads, and each other.
Beef intestine noodles... you want some?
If you want to be Chinese, you got to eat the nasty stuff.
Those Chow Yun-Fat fans expecting another "Hard Boiled" or "The Killer" will be sorely disappointed. Chow's best roles have come from scripts that thrive on characters wrestling with internal conflict, moral dilemmas, and displaced loyalties. While these issues weigh heavily on the character of Nick Chen, the script lays them out in such a way that there is very little sense of urgency and little indication of the toll that they take on him. In simplest terms, "The Corruptor" is your prototypical 'buddy cop' movie.
Don't make any plans tonight.
Because we're going on a panty raid!
Every hackneyed plot device and recycled cliche of the genre is represented here-- the maverick cop who thinks that he doesn't need a partner, the rookie that works hard to gain respect, the hot-headed police chief that doesn't want to hear excuses, the happy-go-lucky jokester of the unit who spends his day spouting one-liners, and so on. Scribe Robert Pucci supposedly did a lot of research on Asian organized crime for this script, but it ends up being a predictable morality tale that takes the lazy way out by re-treading old material. Even the misogynistic stereotype of Asian women being submissive and available rears its ugly head here, with practically most of the female Asian characters being prostitutes and in various states of undress.
Most of what happens in "The Corruptor" has been done before-- Michael Cimino essentially did the same movie fourteen years ago in "Year of the Dragon", which had a cop descending into the seedy underbelly of Chinatown to stop a gang war (interestingly enough, "Year of the Dragon" was scripted by Oliver Stone, who also exec-produced "The Corruptor"). Despite initial protests that "Year of the Dragon" was racist and unfairly portrayed crime in Chinese communities, it wound up offending audience sensibilities with its muddled character motivations and comic book plotting. And in many ways, "The Corruptor" suffers from the same problems. Chow's character never really gels, vacillating from hyperbolic antics of bravado one minute, and then grim contemplation the next. At times, it even seems that Chow is emotionally removed from the scene with his mannerisms wildly inconsistent with the film's tone, which is further exacerbated by Chow's continuing lack of comfort with the English language. Wahlberg's performance is tolerable, but the consistency of his character's motivations wind up being muddled by several questionable decisions and revelations that are made throughout the film.
Action-wise, "The Corruptor" also falls flat. Aside from an interesting opening sequence that shows Chow at his 'heroic bloodshed' best and a deadly chase through the streets of New York, there are very few action sequences to speak of, which is not helped by the film's laggard pacing. And of the action sequences that made it to film, they are so poorly executed that they end up being quite underwhelming, such as the film's climax aboard a cargo ship full of Chinese refugees.
While director James Foley ("Fear") has done his best to capture the flavor of Hong Kong action cinema, his clumsy staging and poor action choreography make the film's shoot-outs difficult to follow and uninteresting to watch. John Woo has an inherent sense of timing and camera placement in order to artfully capture the grace of an action scene-- in "The Corruptor", Foley never seems to have the camera pointed in the right place or times his edits too quickly. Foley also uses some hyper-reality camerawork (à la Kirk Wong) throughout the film, but like his action sequences, the quick edits and jarring camera movements wind up being more distracting than helpful.
"The Corruptor" is no different from your average buddy cop movie, other than having Chow Yun-Fat in it. Despite a meatier role for Chow this time around, it is still far cry from the breakthrough he needs to click with North American audiences. And while some of the action sequences were interesting to watch, a number of the action sequences in "The Replacement Killers" were actually staged and filmed more effectively. With little to offer mainstream audiences and die-hard 'heroic bloodshed' fans, "The Corruptor" will probably sink into obscurity not long after its opening weekend. I just hope that Chow Yun-Fat's Hollywood career won't follow the same path.