I know I'm probably in the filmgoing minority (at least if you examine box office receipts), but I am largely immune to the supposed charms of Nicolas Cage. I find him mannered, actorly (not in a good way), and simply too "heavy" (for wont of a better word) most of the time. I certainly can abide him if there's some fun to be had along the way, but set him down in something dour like Leaving Las Vegas and I'm apt to be the first person exiting the auditorium. Unfortunately that same melancholy hangs over Bangkok Dangerous, a film that attempts to give the slam bang fun of an Asian crime action thriller while melding it to Cage's hangdog persona, to largely unsatisfying results.
Bangkok Dangerous is a big budget, Hollywood financed remake of the Pang Brothers' original 1999 film. The Brothers are back on hand as scenarists and directors, and there's a lot of fun, viscerally exciting action in the film, that much can't be denied. Cage plays Joe, an aging hit man who's in Bangkok for the last kills of his career before he hangs it up for good, knowing that his slowing reflexes will ultimately mean his own death if he doesn't get out of this line of work. While in Bangkok he hires a kid named Kong (Shahkrit Yamnarm) to be his go-fer, and the kid eventually asks to be his pupil in the assassination game. You have to give Bangkok Dangerous credit for avoiding at least one hoary cliché--the student does not return as the nemesis for the master.
The Pangs stage several quite effective sequences, including several hits that are well handled and inventively shot. Two of these involve water, and the brothers obviously worked long and hard to craft some unusual shots (literally and figuratively) as Cage goes about his killing game. Filming the story previously probably didn't hurt, but as is described in one of the extras, everything in this version was painstakingly storyboarded, and it shows most in these fluidly shot and edited action sequences.
The film even makes a nice effort at humanizing Cage, with a romance with a deaf pharmacy worker that, again, defies action thriller standard operating procedure and never puts the damsel in distress (that role is left to Kong's dancehall girlfriend, a part that seems to have been ripped out of a far east touring company of Sweet Charity). Unfortunately, Cage's monotone and stonefaced reactions do little to help make his character seem like anything other than a murderous automaton. I guess these are valid actorly choices--after all, the hitman has to be detached from his line of work or he'd probably go crazy. It just doesn't make for a very compelling lead character or, frankly, performance.
What Bangkok does have going for it is a palpable feel for place and time. Bangkok comes off as a character in its own right, with a grittiness and urban nightmare quality that is only enhanced by the omnipresent use of ugly greens and yellows to light virtually every scene. While some might fault the film for not capitalizing more expansively on this exotic locale, the interior scenes (the bulk of the film) help to make the claustrophobic tendencies of Joe come to the fore and give the film the desperate qualities that underlie a lot of its emotional content.
There's some frankly silly moments towards the end, when Kong points out that Joe's last hit is "like Joe--he gets the bad guys and helps the poor." This of course leads Joe to question his motives and puts the final assassination's outcome up in the air. Some filmic sleight of hand keeps things ambiguous, though any student of action thrillers is going to know that Joe's pangs of conscience can't ultimately be for naught, especially when the hit and hitman have been linked as "the same," so that killing the mark would be like Joe killing himself. Unfortunately, that sequence is then negated by the finale, which has Joe offing everyone in sight, which is supposedly OK since they're really the bad guys. That leaves the Pangs boxed into a corner as the film draws to its close, and they actually filmed two totally disparate endings. The one left in the film may be less traditional, but it's as emotionally unsatisfying as the alternative one (included as an extra), which, although less realistic, probably would have played better for an American action audience that wants its heroes, anti- or otherwise, to triumph unequivocally.
Bangkok Dangerous is an odd mixture of American superstar star vehicle and Asian action elements, and, like oil and water, the two don't mix very well. The Pangs would ultimately do better to divorce themselves from the Hollywood money machine. While a lot of the extra interviews insist that the Hollywood types (Cage was also a producer on this) were simply "along for the ride," letting the Pangs call all the shots, there's too much Cage and not enough Pang to make this the thrill ride it could have been.