Jet Set

Going through the motions: Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4

Lethal Weapon 4
area theaters

The Hitman
Riverview Theater
Friday at midnight, Saturday at 11 a.m.

Was it the Mountain Dew commercial with Jackie Chan? Or was it the Presidents of the United States of America video that had all the ninjas bounding around like Monkees? I'm trying to pinpoint the exact moment when the absorption of Hong Kong action movies into the mainstream started to suck. Seven years ago, when the HK cult began seeping into Middle America through video, cable, and college-town cinemas, the streamlined likes of The Killer and Police Story seemed an antidote to the bloated Hollywood slugfests playing at the mall theaters. And now--wouldn't ya know?--those bloated Hollywood slugfests have responded by appropriating the most obvious elements of the HK style (including its stars) to become even more oppressive than they were before.

When American movies copy their Hong Kong brethren or simply hire away their best talent, the differences in temperament and work ethic remain stubbornly evident--which makes it a lot of fun to compare, say, Chow Yun-Fat's heroic performance in The Killer to his coatrack somnolence in The Replacement Killers. The latest HK action hero to jump the pond is Jet Li, the lithe martial-arts sensation who displayed a stoic, guarded innocence in Fist of Legend and Tsui Hark's first two Once Upon a Time in China films. Making his megaplex debut in the latest plaster-cast installment of the Lethal Weapon series, Li transcends an embarrassing yellow-peril role on charisma alone. Meanwhile, as we might have guessed, Li's new HK vehicle The Hitman employs his daredevil physicality for more than just window dressing.

In Lethal Weapon 4, Li follows what might be termed the Jackie Chan Plan: A Hong Kong superstar accepts what amounts to a custodial position in a smirky Hollywood franchise pic (see Chan's role in 1981's Cannonball Run). The producers get overseas box-office insurance and a hip cachet among cultists; the action hero gets recognition as an honorary Hollywood Square. In a villainous part that's unusual for him (though not for most Asian actors in American action flicks), Li plays a Triad underling who's somehow linked to the smuggling of illegal Chinese immigrants into L.A. Naturally, it's up to newly promoted captains Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover) to harass anyone who looks Asian into coughing up the scheme.

Watching Lethal Weapon 4 is like stumbling upon the last episode of a long-running cop show that's three seasons past its prime: For humor, the actors shout, and there's a laughing-gas fit in a dentist's office that goes on long enough to try even John Cassavetes's patience. As for the action scenes, they're less frantic than usual in a Richard Donner film, and generally more effective. But Donner doesn't quite know what to do with a human special effect such as Li: The big martial-arts battle at the end is photographed in a rainy murk, and Li's fluid, quicksilver moves aren't well served by the predictably rapid cutting. Li brings coiled grace and a glint of cruel bemusement to his villain role, but only in an action series this decrepit would we be asked to applaud Riggs and Murtaugh for double-teaming his ass.

Conversely, The Hitman offers Li's balletic skill undiminished by hyperactive editing--besides copping a comic-book style in the very best sense. The ironic-hitman movie is one of the worst byproducts of the HK craze (c.f., The Big Hit), and the last thing the world needs is another one. But director Tung Wai finds the proper tone for this tall tale about an inexperienced gun-for-hire (Li) whose fast-talking agent (Eric Tsang) gets him an assignment tracking down a self-appointed assassin of evildoers. Despite its premise and lightness of touch, the movie doesn't make a joke of murder the way similarly themed American movies have: The body count is admirably low and the lethal violence is quick, grave, and brutally efficient.

But what really distinguishes The Hitman--and, indeed, the Hong Kong movies in general--is their emphasis on creating action within the frame rather than editing poorly matched snippets into a jackhammer frenzy. In The Hitman's mind-boggling battle royal involving swords, broken glass, and a glowing ring with evil powers, director Wai keeps us constantly aware of the fighters' places within the melee. And he respects Jet Li's abilities enough to give him free rein: Indeed, there's no need to cut away when your lead actor can scale a wall in a few short bounds. Such moves return us to the earliest days of the cinema, when a director had to rely on his actors' athletic dexterity and spatial ingenuity to provide thrills--when it was harder for the camera to lie. Action doesn't just mean kinesthesia: It involves the beauty of motion and accomplishment. If the Hollywood knockoffs of Asian action films teach us anything, it's that anybody can fire two guns at once. And that's precisely why it has come to mean so little.

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