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BANGKOK DANGEROUS

The Pang brothers, Oxide and Danny, return to the scene—and to some extent the plot—of their 1999 breakout hit with this English-language version of “Bangkok Dangerous,” recast into a far more conventional, far less interesting vehicle for Nicolas Cage. He plays an assassin named Joe who travels to the Thai capital for what he hopes will be his final job, knocking off four targets. Naturally things get complicated when he not only hires a local guy named Kong (Shahkrit Yamnarm) as his right-hand guy and grows protective of him, but also becomes interested in a sweet drug-store clerk Fon (Charlie Young). Much mayhem follows, but all the movie proves is that on their home turf the Pangs can make an international hit-man tale every bit as trashy and dull as the ones made in Hollywood or Europe.

The kick in the original picture was that the hero (or antihero, if you prefer), then called Kong (Pawalit Mongkolpisit), was a deaf mute. Cage is apparently unable to stretch himself that far, so instead we get a dreary voice-over from him and the affliction is passed along to the lovely Fon instead. Nic instead contents himself with soulful stares and constipated grimaces as he considers the isolation and lack of human contact his chosen profession has brought him. Oh, he does get to flash a few sheepish smiles and perform an embarrassing bit of shtick over how hot Thai cuisine is when he takes Fon out to dinner. But mostly he’s in gloomy Gus mode, even as he takes on young Kong, whom he at first intends to dispose of after the job’s done (his usual practice), as a student in the art of killing. (The rationale that incessant voice-over offers for this sudden change of heart is that Kong reminds Joe of himself at a young age. You can see that the level of psychological explanation in the script gets pretty deep.)

In any event, apart from Cage’s doe-eyed, stone-faced posturing, and the opportunity for him to take in the Thai sites (parts of the picture are basically a travelogue, and there are plenty of elephants), the raison d’être for this revised “Bangkok Dangerous” is to afford the Pangs the chance to show off their skill at action sequences. The two big set-pieces don’t come until fairly late in the game, and both come across as sloppily choreographed, muddily shot and clumsily edited. The first is a boat chase through some urban canals that’s not even as successful as the one in Tony Jaa’s “The Protector,” let alone similar fare in James Bond pictures galore. Then there’s the big finale, in which Joe eliminates some fellows assigned to kill him and then puts himself at risk to wipe out an army of his client’s goons in order to rescue Kong and the kid’s girlfriend, dancer Aom (Panward Hemmanee) from their evil clutches. It’s a very long, very poorly organized sequence, with cinematography (by Decha Srimantra) that’s often so murky that it’s difficult to discern what’s going on. It also features much entirely gratuitous gore (like a body literally blown to pieces by a grenade) that’s remarkably ugly, even in the poor lighting.
The raucous score by Brian Tyler is of a piece with the garish visuals, which is hardly a compliment.

The 1999 Thai-language version of “Bangkok Dangerous” wasn’t a great movie, but it was an intriguing one that put some quirks in the formula, and it certainly showed promise in the Pangs’ often virtuoso work. By contrast this remake is drab and commonplace. It doesn’t even have the smarts to repeat the icily unsettling titles of the original. In the final analysis it’s simply a regurgitation of innumerable hit-men movies that have come before, with nothing but the exoticism of the locale going for it. And that’s certainly not enough.

BAGHEAD

From the title on down, simplicity is the hallmark of this little movie by the Duplass Brothers, among the most notable practitioners of the stripped-down, improvisational style that’s come to be called “mumblecore.” The latter part of “Baghead” is a sort of minimalist horror movie in which the supposedly terrifying villain is nothing more than a guy wearing a brown paper bag on his head. It’s probably the least specific vision of a threat in a scary picture since the witch you didn’t see in the Blair woods.

Of course, it’s also half a joke, a riff on the absurdity of the horror genre as well as an example of it. And it’s only the second half of the picture, which starts out as an affectionate satire of the underground movie scene and relationship comedy-drama before segueing into the baggy stuff.

Those initial reels are, in fact, the best part of this very uneven super-low-budget exercise. The scenes of the screening of an ersatz “mumblecore”-ish flick at a grubby little festival—including a spot-on parody of a Q&A afterward—will be priceless to those personally acquainted with such tacky events. And the cell-phone subterfuge the central quartet—couples Matt (Ross Patridge) and Catherine (Elise Muller), Chad (Steve Zissis) and Michelle (Greta Gerwig)—use to sneak into the after-party has the ring of absurd honesty to it. The ensuing sequences showing the shifting emotional currents among the four are also interesting, the largely improvised, overlapping dialogue coming across as realistic and the glances and halting come-ons caught by the camera having a ring of truth, too.

But there are definite drawbacks to the method as well. The acting across the board is pretty amateurish, and the camerawork is understandably ragged, with only the most cursory sense of composition. Mumblecore product is frequently dismissed as nothing more than glorified home movies, and “Baghead” could serve as confirmation of the charge.

The most unfortunate part of the picture, though, is the turn to genre business in the last act. All the stuff about the shrouded villain stalking the two couples at the isolated cabin where they’ve gone to write a screenplay is frankly weak, and indifferently played out, with far too many murky, unfocused shots of the quartet running through the woods. Quite simply, it works neither as a real horror movie nor as a take-off on one. There’s an attempt to recover with a cynical concluding twist, but it’s a lot less clever than the makers apparently think.

So “Baghead” will hold a certain intrinsic interest for students of the moviemaking fringe as an example of America’s radically undogmatic variant of the no-frills Dutch Dogma movement, but taken on its own, it’s the sort of thing that’s usually referred to as “showing promise.”