Hong Kong goes West - When Hong Kong film makers attempt to break the Western market - part 3
Even though Rush Hour was a critical and financial success, Jackie Chan chose not to solely focus on the American market. Following Rush Hour, Chan would go on to star in the romantic comedy Gorgeous (1999), a very different Jackie Chan movie. He would also produce Gen X Cops (1999) as well as appear in the film in a small cameo.
On his return to Hollywood, he would star in Shanghai Noon, a Wild West set action comedy that surpasses Rush Hour in a number of ways, with even better action and a great co-star in the form of Own Wilson.
Shanghai Noon also had fellow Hong Kong movie star, and member of the seven little fortunes Yuen Biao working behind the scenes on the films action.
After the Millennium John Woo would proceed to stay in Hollywood, although he would never produce anything close to the quality of Face/Off again. His first film of the decade was Mission Impossible 2 (2000), which could be considered a mixed bag, as it tries to combine the espionage thriller aspect of the first film as well as a John Woo action movie. The first half of the film works as a homage of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), before moving into the more action orientated-stunt heavy section of the film.
As an action thriller it is good, but doesn’t work as a John Woo movie, as his fans could be disappointed due to the length of time it gets to a main action scene. Once the action starts it rarely lets up with the motorbike chase being especially well done, with star Tom Cruise doing most of his own stunts. Since this film the Mission Impossible series has gone from strength to strength, with the latest, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015) possibly being the best entry yet.
After his scene stealing performance in Lethal Weapon 4, Jet Li would go on to headline Romeo Must Die (2000). The role was offered to Li by producer Joel Silver who noted how well received Li’s role had been in Lethal Weapon 4. Unfortunately Romeo Must Die would be a pale imitation of Li’s earlier Hong Kong produced output.
The film is meant to be loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, although there is absolutely no romantic spark between Jet Li and lead actress Aaliyah. The producers actually cut out a kissing scene between the two as it wasn’t received well with a test audience.
The saving graces of the film is some well-choreographed action scenes by Yuen Kwai, although there is an overuse of wirework in them which detracts from the skills of the lead actor. Russell Wong also makes for a good villain and takes away the acting honours in the film, although Delroy Lindo does well with his underwritten part.
Speaking of Yuen Kwai’s fight choreography, it would feature in Bryan Singers X-Men (2000), although there isn’t a great deal of the action that would show his skills. The finale on top of the Statue of Liberty resembles his work on Andrew Lau’s A Man Called Hero (1999) albeit on a smaller scale.
It would seem the commercial failure of Maximum Risk was not enough to put Ringo Lam off from working with Jean Claude Van Damme again, with the two of them teaming up once again for the sci-fi thriller Replicant (2000). Featuring one of Van Damme’s better performances, and also giving him the chance to once again play dual roles, this time as a serial killer and his clone, Replicant actually turned out better than Maximum Risk.
Lam manages to ground the science fiction aspects of the story in reality, and doesn’t focus too much on the cloning aspect of the story. Most of the film follows the clone and the excellent Michael Rooker on the hunt for the serial killer, with the two’s relationship building as the film progresses. There is some obvious doubles used in the film whenever the two Van Damme’s or on screen at the same time, but this can be forgiven due to the lower budget nature of the film. The film isn’t as action heavy as other Van Damme films, with it being on a much lower scale, but the action included is handled well and has that usual Ringo Lam feel to it.
Donnie Yen would follow up his brief sojourn in German television by taking a co-starring role in Highlander: Endgame (2000). Made as an attempt to branch together the film series with the successful television show, the film starred both Christophe Lambert and Adrian Paul. Some elements of the film work better than others, and even though it doesn’t compare to the original cult classic, it is still the best of the sequels. The action scenes included are well done, partly due to the fact that star Adrian Paul is an accomplished martial artist himself.
Another advantage the film had was that Donnie Yen was carrying out double duties. As well as having a small role as Jin Ke, he also was the film’s fight choreographer. Yen ends up having the best fight scene in the film, going up against Adrian Paul. It is a noticeable standout as Yen and Paul are the only two actors in the film to not look stiff when performing action, the worst offender being Bruce Payne as the main villain of the film.
Donnie Yen would be further wasted the following year in Blade 2 (2001), an otherwise excellent comic book adaptation. Only appearing in a handful of scenes and only getting to throw a few kicks, Yen would end up working on the film more behind the scenes, functioning as the films fight choreographer. His work doesn’t disappoint, with Blade 2 being the best entry in the series.
Yen’s previous co-star Jet Li would briefly turn to television in this year, executive producing the television movie Invincible (2001) along with his lethal Weapon 4 co-star Mel Gibson. Poorly directed and paced, the idea was for invincible to spin off into a television series. Even for actors like Billy Zane, Byron Mann and Dominic Purcell this is a low point. Only a few decent fight scenes by Hong Kong fight choreographer Ching Siu Tung make the film bearable.
After the commercial success of Romeo Must Die, Jet Li would continue to work in Hollywood. His next film would be the more enjoyable but still lacklustre The One (2001). Made in the wake of The Matrix, it was one of the first film’s to openly emulate the look of that film with an overuse of the bullet time effect that was so effective in The Matrix. It isn’t so successful here as it can get in the way of seeing the real skills of its leading man, with the film focusing more on special effects than real action.
The main highlight of the film is having Jet Li playing both hero and villain within the same film. The end fight sequence, with the two different versions fighting each other is well done but considering the action was choreographed by Yuen Kwai, you would expect better.
Most of the supporting roles are wasted with actors like Delroy Lindo and Carla Gugino not really getting much to do. Even action star Jason Statham is wasted, although this was pre The Transporter (2003) so it is understandable why he doesn’t get much of a chance to take part in the action.
Considering his first two Hollywood films were decidedly subpar, it was a surprise that Jet Li’s third English language feature turned out as well as it did. Although not up to the standards of the Once Upon a Time in China series, Kiss of the Dragon (2001) is definitely on par with some of his other Hong Kong output such as High Risk (1995) and Bodyguard from Beijing (1995), and made up for any shortcomings the same years The One had.
The film benefits from being set away from America, taking place in France. This is probably due to the film being an Europacorp co-production, with famed director Luc Besson acting as one of the film’s producers. It also has good supporting roles from Bridget Fonda and the terrific Tcheky Karyo who plays the main villain of the film. There is also a supporting role for Cyril Raefilli who would show up a few years later in another Luc Besson production, Banlieue 13 (2004) although he also worked on The Transporter behind the scenes.
Yuen Kwai once again worked with Jet Li, choreographing the action. Out of the Hollywood films Yuen worked on with Li, this is by far their best collaboration, with each of the films action scenes being well done and making the action in the earlier Romeo Must Die and The One pale in comparison.
Back in the DTV arena, but with much more success was Issac Florentine’s U.S. Seals 2 (2001). An in name only sequel to the earlier U.S. Seals (2000), U.S. Seals 2 has a group of commandos infiltrating an island in Japan to stop a terrorist from launching a nuclear weapon. The problem is that the island is filled with natural gas which means that they can’t use guns. This leads to a number of excellently choreographed fight scenes.
It has been obvious that Issac Florentine is a fan of Hong Kong cinema, with a lot of his action scenes featuring stylised fight scenes similar to many Hong Kong films. On a number of these films he used the talents of action director Koichi Sakamoto.
With U.S. Seals 2 he decided to bring in some Hong Kong talent, in the shape of stuntman and action director Andy Cheng, who worked on the film as the second unit director, choreographing the many fight scenes throughout. He also makes a memorable appearance himself as a blond haired mercenary who fights our heroes throughout the film.
Cheng had worked for many years in Hong Kong, working as a stuntman and actor on films like Return to a Better Tomorrow (1994), The Saint of Gamblers (1995) and Mr Nice Guy (1997), before going to Hollywood to work on Martial Law.
His action scenes in U.S. Seals 2 help set the film apart from the usual DTV fodder, and makes the poor acting involved in the film bearable as it’s not long until another excellent action scene.
Director of Photography Peter Pau would follow up the Oscar winning Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) with Dracula 2000 (2001), a film decidedly beneath his talents. Directed by Patrick Lussier and produced by Wes Craven, the film is more of a curio as it stars a pre-stardom Gerard Butler as the title character. Pau photographs the film well, but this is nowhere close to his best work.
After Ronny Yu’s success with Bride of Chucky, he would take a few years off. He finally returned to direct the British action comedy The 51st State (2001). Alternatively known as Formula 51, it gave Samuel L Jackson one of his more eccentric roles, with him wearing a kilt for the whole of the film. Robert Carlyle steals many of his scenes with a comedic supporting turn, and Emily Mortimer is decent as a hit woman.
The film isn’t wholly successful though, with it looking as if the production ran out of money towards the end of the film. With the first half of the film being filled with exciting action scenes, it seems strange to end the film with people talking in a room. Not usually what you would expect from an action film. Still, Ronny Yu handles the action well, showing of his skills with an impressive shootout and car chase.
French director Christophe Gans had shown his interest in Hong Kong cinema previously with his adaptation of the famous Manga Crying Freeman (1995). With that film he adopted a style heavily influenced by John Woo and other Heroic Bloodshed films. It would be another six years before audiences would see another film from Gans, which came in the shape of the terrific Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001).
Influenced by the French story of the Beast of Gevaudan, Gans concocted something special that doesn’t easily fit into any one genre, with it having a mix of horror, martial arts, costume drama and political thriller. He also brought back his Crying Freeman star Mark Dacascos to star alongside French star Samuel Le Bihan. Both of them take part in a number of exciting fight scenes, choreographed by Hong Kong action director Philip Kwok.
As well as having Kwok work on the action scenes, Gans employed the services of Hong Kong editor David Wu, who had previously worked un-credited on Crying Freeman.
Special note should also go to Vincent Cassel who plays an especially creepy character who also gets involved in the action.
Staying in France, at least in terms of setting, would be Peter Hyams The Musketeer (2001), a Martial Arts filled actioner based on the famous Alexandre Dumas novels. The film isn’t wholly successful with the Martial Arts scenes not exactly gelling well with the historical setting, and some members of the cast being particularly bland.
Lead actor Justin Chambers does better in the action scenes than dramatic ones but Tim Roth makes up for this, with a moustache twirling turn as Febre, The Man in Black.
Xin Xin Xiong carries out the fight choreography well, although one particular fight sequence looks as if it was copied straight from the earlier Hong Kong hit Once Upon a Time in China (1991), with Chambers and Roth fighting whilst balancing on sets of ladders.
Peter Hyams also doesn’t do the action any favours, with him settling on a decidedly dark look for the film, which he has done in other films, the worst of these being his most recent work, Enemies Closer (2013). In some scenes it can be difficult to even see what is going on.
At this time Jackie Chan would continue his Rush Hour franchise, with sequel Rush Hour 2 (2001). Although not as fun as the original, Rush Hour 2 still has quite a lot to enjoy, with the opening action scene in Hong Kong being one of many highlights, with Chan and a number of stuntmen fighting amongst bamboo scaffolding.
There is a bit of role reversal this time, with Chris Tucker being the fish out of water this time round. As well as featuring the great John Lone as the film’s villain, Rush Hour 2 also marked Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi’s Hollywood debut.
Brett Ratner directs in his usual anonymous style, although he gets the job done, keeping the film moving along at a good pace.
Jackie Chan would take a step back in terms of quality after Rush Hour 2, starring in the action comedy The Tuxedo (2002). With the gimmick of the film being that The Tuxedo of the title gives the wearer special powers, there was no reason to cast an action icon like Chan, as the fights are pretty much carried out by using CGI, with only the barest minimum of Chan’s usual fight action coming through.
There are some enjoyable aspects of the film, such as a supporting role for Jason Issac and Chan is as likeable as ever, but The Tuxedo is possibly Chan’s poorest realised Hollywood film, second only to The Spy Next Door (2010).
Although Jason Statham is now known as primarily an action star, it was a surprise back in 2002 when he was announced to be headlining The Transporter. He had previously dabbled with the action genre with The One and John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (2001), but The Transporter was his first headlining role.
The Transporter didn’t disappoint, featuring a number of excellently done action scenes that serve Statham well and helped introduce him to a totally new audience. Yuen Kwai was brought on as the film’s main director, as he already had an association with producer Luc Besson by working on the previous year’s Kiss of the Dragon.
It is unclear how much of the film Yuen Kwai actually directed, with French director Louis Leterrier working on the film as assistant director, and being seen on set directing the actors in the more dramatic scenes. Leterrier would actually take over as director on the films sequel, although Besson and Europacorp still employed Yuen Kwai to work on the film’s action scenes.
In addition to Kwai, actress Shu Qui made her English speaking debut with the film, although she isn’t asked to do much other than look great. She would have much greater success after her return to Hong Kong cinema and more dramatic fare.
Sometimes Hong Kong actors can show up in the most unexpected of places. In the case of Richard Ng, fans would never have thought that he would show up in Scottish Soap Opera River City (2002). This wasn’t the only time Ng would show up in British television with him also making appearance s in The Bill (1984 onwards), Genie in the House (2008), Phoo Action (2008) and Red Dwarf: Back to Earth (2009).
John Woo would follow up Mission Impossible 2 with the World War 2 movie Windtalkers (2002). Reteaming Woo with Face/Off star Nicolas Cage, the film is probably closest to Woo’s Hong Kong works in terms of its themes of brotherhood and loyalty. Unfortunately the film ended up being a box office bomb and was critically a failure.
This shouldn’t put viewers off as the film features excellent performances from Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Noah Emmerich and especially Christian Slater. It also has all the action you would expect from a Woo film, with the battle scenes better realised than Woo’s later Chinese produced The Crossing: Part 1 (2014). The best version of the film is the director’s cut which re-instates a good deal of the footage that was removed for the cinema release.
In the same year Woo would also direct the short film Hostage (2002), part of The Hire series made to promote BMW. Although only around 10 minutes long it features enough Woo touches to make it worthwhile to his fans. It also helped to establish lead actor Clive Owen as a Hollywood star.
In 2003 John Woo would make what is to date his last Hollywood feature, and probably his weakest, unless you include his unreleased pilot Robinsons: Lost in Space (2003). Paycheck (2003), based on a story from Science fiction author Philip K Dick is possibly the most impersonal film of John Woo’s later career, with their only being a few of his usual trademarks included, such as the Mexican standoffs and his use of doves.
The film does involve a number of well-orchestrated action scenes, but most of them are small scale and when you watch a John Woo film you expect more. The best of the action scenes is a motor bike chase round the halfway mark, easily surpassing the CGI falseness of the same years Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Ben Affleck was undeservedly awarded a Golden Raspberry Award for his role in the film, but makes for a decent lead. Aaron Eckhart plays the main villain of the film, who is a former friend of Affleck. Their relationship slightly resembles what comes between Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Waise Lee in Bullet in the Head (1990) although on a lesser scale. Paul Giamatti is there for comedic relief and Uma Thurman offers support in a thankless girlfriend role, definitely beneath her after just coming off of Kill Bill.
In the same year John Woo made his last Hollywood film, Ching Siu Tung would make his American directorial debut with Belly of the Beast (2003), a better than usual Steven Seagal effort. Ching Siu Tung is a strange choice of director to helm a Steven Seagal film but this works in the films favour, with Ching constructing a number of excellent action scenes, having Seagal pull of moves that audiences weren’t used to seeing from him Byron Mann also works well in the film as Segal’s sidekick, getting a good share of the action. Belly of the Beast would be a high point in Steven Seagal’s DTV career and streets ahead of the likes of Out of Reach (2004) and more recently Against the Dark (2009)
Other than his later episode of the television show Fear Itself (2008), Director Ronny Yu would end his Hollywood sojourn with Freddy VS Jason (2003), the much awaited joining of the Nightmare in Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises. Although a financial success, the film could never live up to expectations, as fan’s of each franchise seemingly wanted more from the film. Again, Yu handles the on screen action well, with there being a number of memorable death scenes, and the finale between Jason and Freddy being particularly well done.
Like most of the films in each franchise, the acting is quite poor although visually the film is better than most of the entries. Freddy VS Jason is quite a step below the previous Nightmare film, New Nightmare (1994) but a masterpiece in comparison to Jason X (2000), the previous entry in the Friday the 13th series. The film also marked the last time Robert Englund would feature as Freddy Krueger, with him still being able to act everyone else of the screen even under a ton of makeup.
Sometimes certain films have a good deal of Hong Kong talent involved, only to go and squander it in the final production. One such film is Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003). Although a more accomplished film than the first in the series, with better action scenes, the film is still a disappointment.
As well as Angelina Jolie returning as Lara Croft, the film also boasts a good supporting cast of Gerard Butler and Ciaran Hinds in main roles. It is the supporting cast made up of Hong Kong talents such as Simon Yam, Terence Yin and Richard Ng that are wasted in minor roles, with only Simon Yam getting slightly more screen time than the others.
Ringo Lam would once again turn to Van Damme for his third American feature, the prison movie In Hell (2003). Of the three films Lam made with Van Damme, this is the closest to his Hong Kong work, with the film primarily being a drama, closer in tone to Prison on Fire (1988). Van Damme again does great work with Lam, turning out a good performance. His character here isn’t the usual action guys he normally plays, with him getting a beating in many of the fight scenes that happen throughout the film. These fights are brutal and feature no fancy moves.
Like his previous two Van Damme films, In Hell wasn’t commercially successful, but showed that Van Damme worked best with a director that believed in him more as an actor than an action star and gave fans something not totally expected.
Ringo Lam had planned to direct another Van Damme film, Wake of Death (2004), although for some unknown reason the film ended up being directed by producer Phillipe Martinez. Working with Martinez may have been the issue, as he has been known to be overly controlling and make cuts to a director’s film such as what he had done with Andrew Lau’s The Flock (2007). Wake of Death still manages to have some Hong Kong talent in front of the camera, with a charismatic Simon Yam appearing as the films main antagonist.
Kiss of the Dragon wouldn’t be the last film Jet Li would work with Yuen Kwai on a Hollywood feature, however the results were mixed. Cradle to the Grave (2003) does manage to have well-choreographed action, but like Romeo must Die is ruined by certain supporting roles and how the action is cut together. Most of the blame should be laid at the feet of director Andrej Bartkowiak, whose previous films have the same issues.
The finale of the film is especially disappointing, with it being cut between three different fight scenes at the same time, destroying any momentum that they create. The film also seems more interesting in being a vehicle for rapper DMX than a Jet Li film. One good addition to the film is Mark Dacascos as the main villain, but once again his fight scenes are poorly cut together.
After the success of The Matrix, a sequel or in this case sequels were inevitable. Part of The Matrix’s success lay in the excellent action scenes choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, so it was no surprise that he would be brought back to work on both Matrix Reloaded (2003) and Matrix Revolutions (2003).
What was surprising is how disappointing the two sequels would turn out; with both having extremely boring scenes of characters talking “techno babble” and exceedingly long running times that the story didn’t require. The second of the sequels, Matrix Reloaded is probably the guiltiest of this with the action sequences being the films only highlights.
The most memorable action scene in the sequel is the “burly brawl”, which has Keanu Reeves as Neo taking on multiple versions of Hugo Weavings Agent Smith. As impressive as this scene is, the action is somewhat diluted when the actors are replaced by digitally created versions. This may have been ground breaking on release but now resembles a cartoon in some places.
The third film, Matrix Revolutions is actually the better of the two sequels, as there is less of the “techno babble”, with the main part of the film taking place outside of the Matrix. The only parts of the film taking place in The Matrix is the start of the film where there is an interesting variation on a gunfight and the final fight between Neo and Smith, which although is well done, ends up being somewhat anti-climatic
One highlight of both sequels was the inclusion of Collin Chou as Seraph. Although he doesn’t get a great deal of screen time he still gets involved in a number of well-done action scenes. The role of Seraph was originally offered to Jet Li, who turned it down, with it then going to Collin Chou.
More successful for Yuen Woo Ping was his work on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 1 & 2 (2003), which showed him at his best, without the interference of obtrusive CGI.
The first Kill Bill is one of Tarantino’s more action packed films, although it still contains everything you expect from him with excellent dialogue and a great soundtrack. Heavily influenced by Shaw Brothers Kung Fu films and Japanese Chambara, Tarantino throws it all in and created what was his best film to date.
The lengthy finale, with Uma Thurman taking on the Crazy 88 is a definite highlight. Thurman is convincing in her fight scenes throughout and there is no shortage of violence with limbs removed and eyes coughed out. The other actors in the film such as Lucy Liu and Vivica A Fox don’t get as much screen time as Thurman but still get a chance to shine in their respective roles.
Kill Bill 2 followed soon after, due to the fact that both films were actually made as one long feature before being cut in two and released separately. The second part of the film is more like a traditional Tarantino film, with less action and excessive dialogue scenes. There is still one terrific fight scene between Uma Thurman and Daryll Hannah that takes part in a trailer, apparently influenced by Jackass,.
The second film does give David Carradine a great role as Bill, with him getting a fair share of screen time as opposed to his fleeting appearance in the first film. The only disappointing aspect of his role is how short the end fight is between him and Uma Thurman.
Another highlight of both Kill Bill films was the inclusion of legendary martial arts star Gordon Liu. In the first film he merely plays one of the Crazy 88, but he returns in the second film to play Pei Mei, a role Tarantino had originally earmarked for himself.