By now we know enough to beware that flurry of signals at the beginning of most voiced-over tough guy films. They’re as brazen as a fireworks display and usually about as ephemeral. I speak of The Code, presented as immutable law like that which Nicolas Cage details at the beginning of Bangkok Dangerous. (This setup was parodied hilariously in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.) A bit cliched (except in this year’s stunning marvel In Bruges), we’ve learned to listen to The Code warily, both because it’s ironic that thieves and murderers possess one and because we know these very rules will invariably become the recipe for the disasters to follow.
The problem with this movie, a remake by the greatly overrated Thai-Hong Kong-born Pang Brothers of their own earlier film of the same name, is that it contains so few moments of enjoyable payoff. Somehow the twins forgot that most people go to action films for an onslaught of propulsive, edgy imagery. After that, an original idea or two wouldn’t hurt either. This film broods. The Pangs seem to be remaking the great existential Charles Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent hit-man flick The Mechanic, a movie of terrible depths that was unafraid to face its own bleak moral implications. Bangkok Dangerous, however, which has a color scheme that runs from monochromatic blue to hot red, wants it both ways: to promise thrills and then posit hopelessness. Where’s the fun in that?
It does have a great chase scene in a floating marketplace and it sometimes reaches for glimpses of possible serenity. But mostly it has the inert acting of Nicolas Cage weighing it down. We see him break his own somberly stated rules, but he’s such a zombie we can’t begin to guess why. Cage is a totally mixed bag now, great in Lord of War and deliriously stupid in Wicker Man and Ghost Rider. Here he’s just part of the overarching confusion. If action filmmakers need rules of the game and need to break our expectations of these rules, fine. But the Pangs just seem tired of playing.