Wednesday, December 25, 2013

City Hunter (1993)

Action and stunts, whether they’re live or filmed, are eaten up by audiences the world over.  Sometimes this is because they marvel at the physical skill involved.  Watching the razor-sharp choreography of someone like Charles Chaplin or a show like “Cirque Du Soleil,” we are amazed at just what the human body is capable of, and we may even be a little jealous that we’re not at that level (maybe you are, but I’m not).  It puts paid to the expression “poetry in motion.”  Sometimes, however, our excitement doesn’t come from the appreciation of a performer’s abilities.  It comes from our dark, innate desire to see if someone is going to be injured or killed while in the execution of an act.  This is not to say we would wish bad results on these people, but there is a mighty large “if” at the center of spectacles like those Evel Knievel used to do.  Without the danger, though, there is no thrill.  It’s an odd dichotomy.  We may not want to see these people die, but we totally want to see if these people are going to die.  If you think about it, it’s actually a pretty morbid, and pretty large, part of our collective psychic makeup.  Even when the stuntwork has been practiced, and filmed, and edited to within an inch of its life, we are still amazed.  This is the beauty of performers like Jackie Chan.  He shows us the end result of his efforts.  But in a lot of his films, he also shows us the screw ups.  We get it all, and we know that since Chan is still alive and kicking by the end, it’s all good, no matter how many times he had to be whisked to the hospital.  De-mystifying his stunts makes them all the more impressive, because it humanizes (at least in part) the superman we see on screen, and we go from the darker end of why we love these things to the lighter side.  It’s uplifting, sort of.

Ryu, nicknamed the City Hunter (Chan), is a private detective with a carefree streak a mile wide.  When his partner (Michael Wong) is gunned down, Ryu promises to raise Wong’s sister Carrie and never chase after her amorously.  Naturally, this lasts right up until Carrie matures into Joey Wong in the next scene, and then the two have to deal with their feelings, or at least Carrie does.  The search for missing teenager Kyoko (Kumiko Goto), complicates matters, and puts Ryu and Carrie in the path of terrorists, gold diggers, and one of the weirdest musical duos ever.

I’ve not seen tons of Chan’s filmography or director Wong Jing’s either, but I would be interested to know whether or not this one is the furthest removed from reality.  It’s adapted from a manga, and the filmmakers embrace the comic/cartoon aspects of same to the nth degree.  Consequently, we have things like sound effect balloons during a fight.  The sound effects proper throughout the film appear to have been foleyed by the good folks at Hanna Barbera.  The musical score is a quasi-ragtime-style piece of work perhaps better suited to Mickey Mouse’s earliest efforts.  Ryu’s garage looks like the set of a mid-Eighties music video.  A song and dance number breaks out in the middle of the film, with characters inexplicably taking part as dancers (though this sequence fits in a narrative sense, allowing it to play out and observing how other characters react to it emphasizes its oddness).  But because elements like these are embraced with a gigantic smile on the producers’ faces (and most certainly on Chan’s), we more readily accept them.  Sure, there are still instances of the sort of wince-inducing “comedy” that plagues a great many of the airier Asian films I’ve seen.  You know what I mean: the pronounced facial mugging, the overdone slapstick that would give Moe, Larry, and Curly the fits, and so on.  It’s the sort of thing that either hits or misses wide.  Thankfully, it mostly hits here.  

Bearing that in mind, there is little to no attention paid to either plotting or characterization, and this is probably my biggest beef with the film.  Not so much that these things aren’t developed, but that the action-oriented tangents the film goes down are so divorced from the film’s story, that they simply become extensive vignettes.  Like porn loops for stuntwork enthusiasts.  Not a bad thing, by and large, but it can become stale after prolonged exposure.  Just not enough to hate.  

With this film we again have a pronounced emphasis on performances, and not simply from the physical efforts of Chan and company.  The very first scene is a bit of self-reflexivity with Ryu directly addressing the audience.  There is the aforementioned song (“Gala Gala Happy”) and dance from Soft Hard and their cohorts.  Carrie puts on a performance with her cousin (Bei-Dak Lai) aboard the cruise ship, partly in an effort to make Ryu envious.  The two femmes fatale (Chingmy Yau and Carol Wan) put their wares out there (so to speak) to attract rich men, but one of them keeps a briefcase loaded with weaponry.  This presentation aspect is perhaps best summed up by the scene in the movie theater.  Ryu is matched up against two towering black goons.  Meanwhile, Bruce Lee fights Kareem Abdul Jabar in Game Of Death on the movie screen.  Ryu takes his cues from Lee, and after his enemies have been dispatched, Lee gives Ryu verbal and visual thumbs ups.  

This leads me, circuitously, to another facet of this film, and Chan’s films in general, that I’ve noticed over time (again, I can’t speak to his entire oeuvre).  There is a sort of sexless sexuality at play, which at once appeals to the prurient interest of fourteen-year-old boys while simultaneously being remarkably chaste.  When Ryu sleeps, he dreams of scads of swimsuit-clad women fawning over him in a pool.  Ryu touts himself as a womanizer of the first order, yet he doesn’t kiss a single woman the entire film (or none that I can recall).  We get semi-lurid shots of women lounging poolside, but none ever take their clothes off.  It relies on what parts of the human body are allowed on display (and they are some darn fine parts, no argument there), but there is never any sort of consummation happening.  Like Sheriff Buford T. Justice once said, “You can think about it.  But don’t do it.”  This is a flirtatious, wholesome sexuality.  It doesn’t even quite rise to the ribaldry level of something like The Benny Hill Show.  Nonetheless, it absolutely has an easygoing charm about it.  It’s not aggressive.  It’s more like the first time you took notice of those suspect lumps under a girl’s shirt when you were twelve or thirteen.  It has a good-natured heart behind it.  Is it sexist?  Maybe.  But it’s innocent, too.  I suppose this is an odd way to end a review of an Action film, but I think it nicely reflects the disposition with which I left this film.  So there.      

MVT:  The “anything goes” sense of fun is infectious, and it goes a long way in bolstering the film’s ample charms.  To play a film like this any more seriously than this one is would be a mistake, in my opinion.

Make Or Break:  The Make is the scene where Ryu scans the fingerprints on Kyoko’s butt, trying to determine who the bad guys are.  There’s a terrific payoff to this, and it is handled remarkably deftly here.  I know it’s not as visually impressive as something like the Street Fighter scene, but I simply loved this little moment.

Score:  7.25/10

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