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'The Corruptor' walks a familiar movie beat.

By Joe Tarr

MARCH 22, 1999:  The one genre film that will never go out of fashion is the cop thriller. From Dirty Harry to Lethal Weapon and Bruce Willis, Hollywood and the viewing masses are addicted to seeing the cops 'n' robbers (well, usually, killers) conflict endlessly played out on the big screen. With Hollywood devoting so much of its energy to this form, you'd think that executives, writers, and auteurs would be working hard to come up with new twists on the theme.

Why, oh, why, then are so many cop movies so predictable, unbelievable, and generally lifeless? So many films simply mix together a ruthless villain, a cynical but good-hearted cop stifled by his superiors, a few expensive car chases, and several shoot-outs that get progressively bigger.

The Corruptor has all of these elements. And while it remains completely within its formula constraints, it is a step above your average cop movie.

The difference can be boiled down to the writing and acting. Robert Pucci has written a script that is almost believable, and that gives its main characters room to develop. The two stars, Chow Yun-Fat and Mark Wahlberg, take it and run.

Chow plays veteran cop Nick Chen who heads up the organized crime unit for New York City's Chinatown. Wahlberg plays rookie Danny Wallace—the first white officer assigned to the all-Asian unit. Chinatown's underworld is ruled by two warring gangs, and Chen is on the take from one of them, though he has not abandoned his sense of justice.

The Corruptor is the second American film for Chow, a star of Hong Kong cinema (the first was The Replacement Killers). He shows exactly why he was a star there, overwhelming the screen in nearly every scene. He gives his compromised character, struggling to remain in control and retain some sort of moral high ground, a quiet strength and mystery.

Wahlberg is great portraying the young, naive cop, combining the needed mix of insecurity and ego. When his own moral dilemma comes to light, he can't equal Chow's subtlety, but neither does his performance fall apart. Also superb is Ric Young, who plays a shrewd gangster.

Pucci mines the complicated plot with a number of twists, but they are never contrived or out of place. Only the conclusion, unfortunately, is predictable.

Despite the strong writing and acting, something vital is missing. Unlike the flashy Hong Kong films, Corruptor lacks any cinematic panache to give it life. The cinematography is unimaginative, and the editing choppy.

And the fight scenes are flat. There is a stock car chase, remarkable primarily because the bad guys shoot several bystanders. Since none of this is played over the top, you wonder how these cops could survive such a catastrophe in New York—Mayor Rudy Giuliani would surely sacrifice them to save his reputation, but the only authority the Asian unit ever seems to answer to is an FBI agent who competes with the cops for busts.

More importantly, the film has no sense of place. Chinatown and its inhabitants are mere props—a mysterious place, populated with odd foreigners, who are depicted as either scary bad guys or innocent victims. Exploited through Wahlberg's character, this could have been an interesting theme. But director James Foley plays it straight, and the film might as well have been set in Little Italy or Little Odessa. The soundtrack seems made for some other cop movie (it features several rap songs and Frank Sinatra, but no Chinese influenced music).

About all we get in the way of cultural conflict or understanding comes when a drunken policeman complains about how Americans always think Asians' penises are small, and then offers to show Wallace his stuff (maybe an in-joke reference to Wahlberg's Boogie Nights baring).

In one scene, Wallace stumbles into a basement dungeon, where young immigrant women are imprisoned and porno films are made. Prying open a padlocked door, he comes face to face with several of the girls. Their faces are sunken, and they stare numbingly back as Wallace shines a flashlight into their eyes. After a short pause, he wanders off to save them from slavery. But the effect is that these victimized immigrants (like all the other inhabitants of Chinatown) are blank and faceless.

Near the movie's end, the camera pans past the Statue of Liberty and then a procession through Chinatown. I suppose these are symbols of immigrant fortitude and the enduring American spirit, and the conflicts the two can produce. But Foley is unable to capture much in the way of genuine Chinese-American culture, and he suggests rather than delves into themes of immigrant desperation and drive.

Perhaps I ask too much. A cop drama with superb acting, writing, and tension are rare enough these days.


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