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Metro Pulse Two-Fisted Tales

"The Big Hit" parodies the Hong Kong action genre even as it ladles on the gunplay.

By Zak Weisfeld

MAY 4, 1998:  With the success of John Woo, and acknowledgment, at least, of Jackie Chan, Hong Kong cinema has definitely established itself on our shores. Foreign cinema has periodically washed ashore (and this may or may not be related to El Nino) and dragged itself way into the heart of the American dream factory. It was German at the end of the '20s, and French and Italian in the '60s; in the '90s it is Hong Kong.

Despite the success of Face/Off and the arrival of action star Chow Yun Fat in The Replacement Killers, not to mention Jackie Chan's latest release, there have been some wonderful aspects of Hong Kong cinema that have yet to clear customs. Until now, that is. The Big Hit, despite starring Mark "Marky" Wahlberg and Lou Diamond Phillips, seems dead-set on filling in the gaps in our Hong Kong flavor. Indeed, The Big Hit is probably the most Hong Kong film ever to open on American soil.

A big, action packed movie, The Big Hit has a simple, elegant, and deeply bizarre script by Ben Ramsey. The story of a hitman with a dysfunctional heart of gold, The Big Hit revolves, like precisely 43 percent of the movies released in the last four months, around the kidnapping of a rich girl. While this theme is certainly worthy of a profound critical exploration of its own, it is to the credit of The Big Hit that the device seems neither stale nor terribly troubling.

Some of this is due to the charm of the cast. Bokeem Woodbine, Phillips, and Antonio Sabato, Jr., star as the four hitmen in the employ of underworld boss Paris. Played by the commander of Deep Space Nine, Avery Brooks, in full, menacing, basso profundo, Paris serves as an anchor to the rest of the young cast.

Heading the pack is Wahlberg as Melvin Smiley, the hitman who wants everybody to like him. Wahlberg is fun to watch and is especially good when he's being too polite. As in Boogie Nights, Wahlberg is best playing the naf. But while he's a solid physical actor, he seems to lack intensity; not that he has the distracted, glue-sniffing vagueness of Keanu Reeves, merely that Wahlberg might actually be a very nice guy.

Newcomer China Chow plays Wahlberg's love interest and is at times almost too spunky for his gentleness. Still, she manages the role of the kidnap victim, a role so recently assayed by such geniuses as Alicia Silverstone and Cameron Diaz, with sparkly aplomb.

Phillips, who has always been too pretty to be taken seriously as an actor, lets it rip for an over-the-top comic performance as Cisco. A slick-haired, gold-toothed weasel, Phillips makes Cisco as greasy as Brill Cream and almost as much fun.

Though Woodbine's role is small, he's crucial to the tone of the film. His character, Crunch, is the muscle of the group and essentially without personality except for one curious thing—Crunch has forsworn sex in favor of the pure, unadulterated joys of onanism. The knowledge of Crunch's seed-spilling commitment is conveyed shortly after the showy opening hit, while the four men stand nude in the locker room discussing women and money.

This is a curious scene in a mainstream American movie. It's possible that Sony Pictures was hoping to exploit the audience of adolescent girls who made Titanic into a billion-dollar movie by tantalizing them with the naked behinds Marky Mark and Lou Diamond Phillips. Or perhaps its part of a plot to lure vulnerable adolescent males into a life of homosexuality. Regardless, the scene is strange both for its content and for the way it fits so seamlessly into the rest of the film.

While Woo has brought the staccato action style and intense male bonding of Hong Kong cinema to America, his movies have all the romance and eroticism of a Rambo III. In The Big Hit, it is the romance and slapstick comedy that really carry the film. Director Che-Kirk Wong is competent in the action sequences, though no threat to Woo, but it is in the scenes of Wahlberg's homelife and budding romance that Wong's skills come to life.

With its bizarre sense of humor and an unforgettable kosher dinner cooking scene that makes 9 1/2 Weeks seem like the Joy of Cooking, (never will you stuff chicken the same way again), The Big Hit introduces us to the bawdy wit and colorful humor of Hong Kong cinema. Let's just hope that it catches on as successfully as the two-gunned hitman leaping over the counter-top.

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