Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the column I can't think of a witty introduction to. This week we inaugurate our cultural exchange programme as Jet Li travels to LA and Michael Caine heads for Vietnam...
A Boy Called Su
When embarking upon a major undertaking, such as the making of a movie, it is generally a good idea for everyone to know what their role is, and for those roles to have been assigned by someone who knows what the participants' individual strengths are.
For example, in 1974 Hammer Films teamed up with the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers to make Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, in which Peter Cushing and some contracted martial arts experts set off into the Chinese interior to sort out some unconvincing zombies.
Crucially for our thesis, Cushing was excused almost all kung fu duties, while the Chinese actors were called upon to say 'Transylvania' no more frequently than was absolutely necessary.
A similar careful allocation of duties seems to have been employed by Joel Silver and Andrzej Bartkowiak, producer and director of the new thriller Cradle 2 The Grave. This film features martial arts champion Jet Li (assignment: ass-whuppin'), rapper DMX (assignment: shouting m****f***** a lot and being down with da street), model Gabrielle Union assignment: filling cleavage and booty quotas), and comedian Tom Arnold (assignment: being Roseanne's unfunny ex-husband). A shame they forgot to include any actors, but then again this is a Hollywood action movie. Also stirred into the mix, although to be honest providing not much more than extended cameos, are Mark Dacascos and Kelly Hu as the villains (Hu is obviously getting in practice ahead of her scrap with Wolverine in X Men 2).
Why is this film called Cradle 2 The Grave? I haven't a clue. It's all about Twaiwanese spy Su (Li), who's in LA on the trail of secret 'black diamonds' stolen from his government by ex-colleague Ling (Dacascos), who plans to auction them off to arms dealers. But the diamonds have fallen into the hands of improbably virtuous gangster Tony Fait (DMX), who gives them to his fence Archie (Arnold) to check out. This annoys Ling who... oh, good grief, I really can't go on with this. It's got a rapper and a kung fu star in the lead roles! Do you
honestly think the plot is remotely important?!?
The script, as usual with this sort of thing, is mainly there to propel the stars from one (usually violent) set-piece to another, and to be fair the film racks up an impressive quotient of carnage as it goes along, building up a sort of deafening, juggernautish momentum in the process. By the climax it's all degenerated into absurd cartoon mayhem, but by this point you'll have either walked out of the theatre or given in and put your brain in neutral. Li does his regular thing of looking impassive and laid back (with admirable sang-froid, he performs one fight sequence without removing hands from pockets) and gets his signature beat-the-crap-out-of-twenty-people-simultaneously fight as well. Possibly not one of the world's greatest actors, but who is in this line of work?
Well... having said that, as martial arts stars go Mark Dacascos is virtually unique in being charismatic and articulate and actually able to emote convincingly (he's a fair singer and dancer too). He's deserved a lucky break for many years now and I hoped this movie would be it. So it's a shame that he gets so little to do here. His closing showdown with Li is everything one might have hoped for, but its impact is diluted by being intercut with two rather less impressive fights, Hu vs Union and DMX vs Woon Young Park.
Cradle 2 The Grave's action movie credentials are respectable but those who see cinema as an instrument of social change will probably be more concerned by the frankly dodgy message this film is putting out. It's racist (Chinese people know kung fu, black people are
criminals, and white people are overweight and smug) and homophobic (there's a terrible scene in which one of the DMX bandits tries to distract a gay security guard by coming on to him rather like John Inman in Are You Being Served?), and this is before we even get to the film's treatment of women. The script's attempts to make a hero out of a robber are risible: in just one of the film's unintentionally funny moments we see DMX hurrying home from a diamond heist to tuck his little daughter in and say her prayers with her. He also has a 'no guns' policy (at the start of the film, anyway), not that this stops him using a bazooka to blow the door off a bank vault.
And, yes, the film's attitude to women is clearly derived from gangsta rap culture. That, or the early 70s Carry On films (not that there's much to choose between the two), because the sense of humour on display is, ahem, obvious. Gabrielle Union is the butt of most of the jokes (the norks too, if we're honest). She also gets lumbered with one of the most outrageously contrived and gratuitous lapdance/striptease scenes in recent memory. This is not redeemed in any way by the director's belated attack of coy tastefulness halfway through (guys, if you're going to make films which exploit women and their bodies in such a leeringly prurient way, you could at least do a decent job of it!).
I imagine following Jet Li's American film career is rather like being a fan of Preston North End football club. I regularly trot along to each new film he stars in, ever hopeful that this will be the one that showcases his talent to good effect, and regularly I'm in for bitter disappointment. While Cradle 2 The Grave is better than Lethal Weapon 4, The One, and Romeo Must Die, this really isn't saying much. (Jet, pride is all very well but you shouldn't have turned down that part in The Matrix!) It's noisy and fairly
engaging but it leaves a sour taste in the mouth and is, in the end, dramatically and morally ridiculous. Undemanding trash entertainment - not the worst film ever made, but you really should be able to find something better to do instead of watching this.
It's ironic that, for a country that's not really been overly blessed with genuine movie stars (not recently, anyway), we've only recently appreciated the national treasure that is Sir Michael Caine. Admittedly the great man did not help his standing much by appearing in a load of old crap throughout the 1970s (mainly to pay off various mortgages), but now, in this late stage of his career, each new appearance is something to be looked forward to.
And now he's back in Phillip Noyce's The Quiet American, based on the novel by Graham Greene. Here Caine plays Thomas Fowler, a world-weary (and, this being a Greene protagonist, Catholic) reporter stationed in Saigon in the early 1950s. Fowler hasn't gotten involved in the war between the governing French authorities and the Communist rebels - he doesn't even have an opinion on the matter. But his cynicism extends only so far, and he's deeply in love with his much-younger Vietnamese mistress Phuong (played by the heartstoppingly beautiful Do Thi Hai Yen). Their life together is set for upheaval, though, when the hardly-industrious Fowler is threatened with recall to London, forcing him to visit the war zone in search of a story - and also by the arrival in Vietnam of idealistic young American aid
worker Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser, shrewdly cast). Pyle is determined to help both Phuong and the country, no matter what methods he is forced to use...
It's not easy to make a film of one of Greene's thoughtful and skilfully written novels at the best of times, and to make one about an American bombing a Third World nation 'for its own good' that isn't commercial suicide in the current climate is an enormous challenge (even bigger than the one I face in trying to get any witty remarks on this subject past the BBC censors). But Noyce has managed it pretty well: the movie is well staged, extremely well photographed, and stylishly directed.
He gets a towering performance out of Caine. To be sure, there's not much exactly new here - various bits of most of his latterday roles get recycled - but the overall effect is compelling, moving, and entirely worthy of his Oscar nomination. He doesn't steal the movie: rather, it is constructed around him.
And this isn't wholly to the benefit of the film. For one thing, it gives Brendan Fraser a very difficult job indeed in bringing the eponymous character to life. Fraser is a much underrated actor; on his day he's quite capable of holding his own against seasoned scene-stealers like Sir Ian McKellen. But here he struggles, sidelined too much by the dominance of Caine's character. And given that the conflict - both romantic and political - between the two is at the heart of the story, this inevitably affects the impact of the story.
To the film's credit, it tackles some thorny moral and political issues with impressive intelligence, seeming to suggest that there are no easy answers - but the political themes of the story (which are vaguely like those of the most famous Greene movie, The Third Man) are pushed into the background by the film's focus on Caine and the love triangle. It may make the film more marketable these days, but that's all it achieves.
Despite all this, though, I found The Quiet American to be an intelligent, involving, and extremely well made drama. Circumstances may have given it a certain resonance its makers didn't intend, but even without this it would still be worth seeing, if only for Caine's
consummate display of screen acting technique. A great performance in what's only a good movie - pity they couldn't have split the difference a bit more.