Incongruous Double Feature: Bangkok Dangerous and Traitor

by |
09/08/2008 3:49 PM |

Jesse Hassenger is either anal-retentive about seeing every English-language film in wide release in this country, or has far too much spare time, or both.

Bangkok Dangerous and Traitor (the movie I snuck into after Bangkok Dangerous) actually seem like they would work reasonably well together, because they’re both action-y thriller-y type of movies, one about a hitman on (yes) his last job and the other about a terrorist cell. But it turns out that neither of them are particularly thrilling, and if you want anything in that department, Tell No One and Transsiberian are still playing (actually-congruous double-feature alert: they’re both reasonably Hitchcockian!).

Bangkok Dangerous
, at least, substitutes something for its general lack of suspense or excitement. Nicolas Cage plays the hitman, who, while in Bangkok for business, starts to grow fond of his temporary lackey/sidekick (who is supposed to be disposable) and a deaf woman he meets at a pharmacy. He gives hitman lessons to the sidekick, and goes on dates with the deaf woman. For awhile, Bangkok Dangerous is barely even an action movie, and you can almost see why Cage would want to produce and star in it, at least moreso than some of the other movies on the lengthy “inexplicable picks” section of his resume.

Despite his regular box-office flops, Cage remains a somewhat bankable star (Ghost Rider may have been shlock, but it was a hit, and National Treasure 2 was his biggest movie ever), though I don’t really understand why. I don’t know anyone who particularly likes him apart from some members of my film-geeky circle, and I know plenty of people who profess to really hate the hell out of him. It saddens me, but I get it. At his best, Cage can be downright alienating: he brings an outsize personality, underrated range, and full commitment to offbeat or depressing films. It’s easy to say he’s been lost since shortly after his Leaving Las Vegas Oscar win, but this decade has seen some of his best performances: Adaptation, Matchstick Men, and The Weather Man — terrific movies all — and some of his most inspired work has been in action movies (Con Air, Face/Off), which couldn’t be said for many actors. This skill serves his schizophrenic taste in material well, as Cage has worked with equal parts brilliant directors (Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Spike Jonze) and hardcore hacks (Brett Ratner, Mark Steven Johnson, whoever made Next).

In fact, I’m fond of saying that Cage is incapable of giving a boring performance, but in Bangkok Dangerous he certainly gives it his best shot; he’s in the same sleepy long-haired mode as his junky sci-fi thriller Next. What saves this Cage performance from true stupor isn’t so much how he plays it but what he has to do, which is to say mope with endearing ridiculousness. When he becomes a sort of amoral sensei to his assistant, dispensing lessons in hand-to-hand and gun-to-head combat while clad in sweatpants and that mullet-y hair, the movie begins trafficking in deeply Cageian goofiness. Then there’s a neat tiny-motorboat chase on a canal, and the damn movie tricked me. I thought it was going someplace, however silly.

I haven’t seen the original Thai Bangkok Dangerous, directed by the same Pang Brothers who did this one, but apparently in that version, the hitman, rather than the love interest, is the deaf character. Why that detail would be tinkered out (especially for a showy daredevil like Cage) while maintaining an ending that seems blatantly and nonsensically faithful to another, far more melodramatic story, I have no idea. But it leads to a zero-sum movie, one that burns itself down before it can amount to anything.

Traitor is something worse, though: dull all over. The critical consensus on this movie seems to be that it sacrifices some dramatic complexity for the sake of routine thrills and cases. This assessment is actually quite generous, because it assumes that Traitor is a well-made thriller with little on its mind. The Bourne movies are well-made thrillers with little on their mind; Traitor is an inert TV movie that strands several good actors — Don Cheadle plays a maybe-terrorist, Guy Pearce is an agent on his trail, and Jeff Daniels is a shadowy operative. The few interesting twists come so infrequently that the rest of the story feels like it’s moving in slow motion.

I was afraid Guy Pearce would soon find himself consigned to low-budget period films a la Jeremy Irons, so it’s a relief, at least, to see him in a modern movie. Unfortunately, he and veteran weasel Neil McDonough are stuck in a double act of mind-numbing simplicity: Pearce, you see, is playing an inquisitive and fair-minded agent who got into this anti-terrorism business after getting a doctorate in religious studies, while McDonough wants to ignore the Bill of Rights and get the bad guys by any means necessary. We know this because he says it out loud, in dialogue that I’ve come close to repeating verbatim (I’ve failed at a direct quote because it’s so unmemorable). This wouldn’t matter much if the movie had either some Bourne-like snap, but it’s the deadliest kind of procedural: one where details accumulate despite the sense that you’re not learning anything even about made-up procedures, much less their real-life counterparts.

Overture Films, the oddball mini-major that produced Traitor, is moving full speed ahead toward what I assume to be more thriller-related disappointment: Righteous Kill comes out next weekend! Their reunion of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, looks like an incongruous double feature all on its own: Heat simul-screened with 88 Minutes, the terrible, terrible previous movie of director Jon Avnet. Let’s just keep hoping that Nicolas Cage escapes Avnet’s orbit.

5 Comment

  • Two things.

    First of all, glad to see your affection for the truly idiosyncratic and thus oddly subversive persona of Nicolas Cage: Major Movie Star. My favorite Cage performances are the ones where he seems most obviously to be playing himself — so, basically, Wild at Heart.

    Also, Anthony Lane’s review Bangkok Dangerous (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2008/09/08/080908crci_cinema_lane) recently became this year’s frontrunner for the annual Anthony Lane Award for Excellence in Blatant Word Count Padding Via Inane Cocktail Party Bon Mots.

  • Poop Cage sucks. I hate him. His hair is gross

  • Yeah, Mark took the words out of my mouth with Wild at Heart. Golden palm winner at Cannes, but somewhat forgotten film? The car accident scene was just masterful in that movie, possibly Lynch’s best work? Another Cage flick I like is Birdy, where he played 2nd fiddle to Matthew Modine.

    and yeah, Righteous Kill looks terrible, maybe see The Panic in Needle Park instead, at Anthology.

  • Ooh, Birdy is a good one. My gf made me watch it because she said it had one of the best endings she’d ever seen, and I had to concur.

    As far as seventies acting movies I haven’t seen yet, Scarecrow tops my list… I’m almost there on Netflix. And I think I’m going to go to both Godfather restorations at Film Forum because I’ve never seen either theatrically before.

  • fyi- Scarecrow is at Anthology this Wednesday!