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‘Bangkok Dangerous’

Hollywood makeover assassinates a classic

by Kaori Shoji

Why are 21st-century cinema assassins so jaded? Even James Bond (and let’s face it, he does rub out people for money) isn’t exactly full of pep, carrying around, as he does, a lot of emotional baggage and seeming always to be stifling a sigh.

There was a time when assassins killed targets without blinking and enjoyed themselves. Consider Clemenza in “The Godfather” who brought home a box of Cannoli for his wife after shooting a guy in the head. Or the female assassin in “Nikita,” who pulled off a job in a hotel bathroom wearing just a cherry-print bra and panties as her boyfriend waited on the bed just a couple of meters from the door.

These assassins had energy. Style. A crazy sort of charm. But a guy like Joe (Nicholas Cage) in “Bangkok Dangerous” gives the profession a bad name. Not only is Joe jaded, he’s preachy, giving out laugh-out-loud obvious, assassin rules like: “Don’t ask questions. There is no right or wrong,” with a straight face. Even more unforgivable is the peculiar wig he wears throughout, seemingly attached to his scalp with Superglue.

Oxide and Danny Pang, who made the original version in 1999, give”Bangkok Dangerous” a second go. The Pang Brothers are known as masters of stylized gratuitous violence — few other filmmakers can engineer those perfect arcs of blood spraying from slit throats and splattering the walls with Pollockesque flourishes; they nonchalantly chop-chop through scenes as if they didn’t give a damn about aesthetics.

The original “Bangkok . . . ” was crammed with those arcs spraying jets of blood and a lot of nauseating fun, but the new movie was re-outfitted for an American market and looks like bad choices were made in terms of what to keep from the 1999 version, and what to change.

Much of what made the original movie so compelling and dangerous is gone, turning the story into a weird, misshapen nightmare that’s not scary so much as just lame: a waste of time.

Sadly, leading man and action hero Nicholas Cage seems to feel the same way. There are some moments when he gives a “what-am-I-doing-here?” expression, as if he’s really regretting the moment when he said yes to the role and signed on the dotted line.

But maybe that’s just his character Joe, jaded to perfection by the pressures of work and travel. A top-notch, globe-trotting assassin with a “success rate of 99.9 percent” (which leaves you wondering what the 0.1 percent could mean), Joe has arrived in Bangkok for the last four jobs before his retirement. Visibly wilting from the heat and possibly bored out of his mind, Joe plans to deploy his usual method: recruit some kid off the street, have him run errands and do the interpreting and when the assignment is over, shoot him dead. This time he hires the chiseled Kong (Shahkrit Yamnarm). Kong is sullen at first, but he gradually warms to Joe, and when he discovers what his boss actually does for a living, begs to become an apprentice. Some career choice. In the meantime, Joe strikes up a relationship with a sweet, deaf pharmacist named Fon (Charlie Yeung), and suddenly his solitary, noninvolved existence is crowded with relationships. Not that this makes Joe any less weary — up till now, he has only watched out for himself, now he feels responsible for two more.

In the original version, the hit man was the deaf-mute. He was also Thai, and based in the Bangkok underworld. The plot had some holes and the filming style was rough and jagged, but there was never a sense that the filmmakers or the cast were out of their depth. The film took the viewers on a fevered race through the nether regions of Bangkok and left them there, to be enthralled and then disgusted and ultimately, fascinated. Ten years later “Bangkok Dangerous” feels fake and touristy: A hodge-podge plate of Thai food served in a mall, thousands of kilometers away from Bangkok.