Hong Kong movie mayhem is wildly entertaining

October 03, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Baltimore, meet Mr. Ringo Lam, of Hong Kong. But remember: bring your Kevlar vests.

Lam, one of the reigning kings of the cult of mayhem and firepower that is Hong Kong cinema, comes to the Charles tonight; rather, his almost indecently entertaining film "Full Contact" does.

Inaugurating a four-film "Hong Kong Monday Madness" series, "Full Contact" might be described as a whacked-out, full-tilt boogie Asian gunfest. And that's understating it. It's one from Column A and one from Column B. You may be shocked, you may be repulsed, but if you're not smiling when you leave the theater, check your pulse. You're probably dead.

Starring Chow Yun-Fat, who would become a close collaborator of another Hong Kong genius John Woo (Woo's "A Better Tomorrow," with Fat, is the second film in the series, Oct. 24), it's the story of a Bangkok bar bouncer turned robber who is betrayed by the mob, set up and nearly killed. He survives, rides back into town and starts knocking on doors.

Lam, as it turns out, is a specialist in heist movies, and this one features two beauts: a bloody take-down of a jewelry store, and a complex, Peckinpah-esque robbery of a truckload of army weapons.

But it's not just the choreographed action sequences, the kung fu with Berettas, that gives Lam in particular and Hong Kong cinema in general its dizzying reputation. Rather, it's the combination of American action worship and tough guy gangsterism with Asian notions of honor and civility in an overwhelming craze of glee. The films are so effortlessly exuberant, they are like going to a really good party. In fact, the movies all bear a similarity to an equally artificial, transplanted genre -- the Italian westerns of the mid-'60s, with their ornate, operatic sensibility, exquisite production design and out-of-scale villains. (Quentin Tarantino is said to have lifted whole patches of Lam's "City of Fire" for his "Reservoir Dogs.")

Indeed, the villains in "Full Contact" are worth the price of admission alone. There's a preening gay "magician," who is always prestidigitating guns and knives out of his violet silk handkerchief; a huge man with a punk haircut, the face of a large pig and a fondness for automatic weapons; and, finally, his wife, an exuberantly sleazy gun moll, a sexual machine whose hobby is killing while she giggles.

Ranged against this mutant crew is Fat. I may not know physics, and I may not know Beethoven, and I may not know 19th century Balkan politics, but darn it all, I know cool. Fat is cool. He may be the coolest guy in movies, at least since Steve McQueen went to the Harley-Davidson Rally in the sky. Movie-star handsome, Fat projects an inner serenity and an outer violence; he's the best smoker left in movies, and he moves with snakelike grace and certitude. He's the cat who always knows what to do next.

Lam comes up with strokes Sam Peckinpah never thought of, but often imitated. In this one, he slows the film down at dramatic moments when bullets are fired, and actually tracks, in slow mo, the course of the projectile across the room and watches as it burrows for the flesh. I have no idea how this was done, although it appears to all the world that they fire real bullets into expendable actors.

There's also weirdly eccentric details. The movies are gushingly sentimental, and there's usually, a) a tortured buddy relationship, and b) a little girl who needs an operation. "Full Contact" has both.

I also love the stroke by which the Cantonese dialogue is translated by technicians unfamiliar with the subtleties of English and so the fractured subtitles are often comically baffling. Also amusing: the Asian names are translated into bland little English equivalents. All the way through, Fat is "Jeff" and the buddy-cousin who betrays, then reunites with him, is "Sam." It's a toot.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Full Contact"

Starring Chow Yun Fat

Directed by Ringo Lam

Released by Rim Film

Unrated

7:20 p.m., Charles Theatre

***

The series:

* "A Better Tomorrow," with Chow Yun Fat, directed by John Woo: Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m.

* "Police Story II," with and directed by Jackie Chan: Nov. 14, 7 p.m.

* "One Upon a Time in China II," with Jet Li; directed by Tsui Hark: Dec. 5, 7 p.m.

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