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Ed Owens:
The Fast and
the Furious

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by Ed Owens

"Hey, man, leave him alone...he doesn't know anything."

That single line, coupled with a particularly funny cameo by Fabio, has cost me dearly. Both come from a sleeper stoner hit from last year (which will remain nameless so that I may preserve what little credibility I have). The problem arose when I suggested that movie (whose name will be never again pass my lips in such a manner) to a friend. Needless to say, the friend was not amused, and it's only been the miracle of therapy that has allowed us to continue our relationship.

The lesson learned (for me, as hers would seem to be painfully obvious) is that certain movies demand to be seen with certain people...and only those people. One such person is my friend Drew, who laughed right along with me the first time we saw the now infamous Fabio scene. He and I tend to see the stuff nobody else in our circle wants to see: the stuff that we as true and faithful movie whores must see in order to maintain our official status; the stuff that we can see amidst the relative anonymity of the multiplex as opposed to the computer archived rentals of the video store; the stuff that we can see practically for free because we know the manager. In short, the stuff we saw this past weekend.

Digression: One could list myriad ways that films distinguish themselves from TV. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), such distinctions are rapidly becoming influences. The widescreen format has now become so pervasive that it shows up in commercials and music videos, and television broadcasts in surround sound are now the majority (though Golden Girls is still shown in mono for the purists in the audience). The latest crossover trend goes the other way, with theaters beginning to air commercials prior to the regular trailers. As Drew and I settled in for Kiss of the Dragon, we were, instead, treated to the super extended dance remix of Britney Spears' Pepsi commercial with extra footage. Britney was followed by a rather bizarre M&Ms commercial, which, in turn, was followed by an extremely puzzling Jeep Cherokee commercial. The next commercial prompted us to join the Armed Forces - probably to pay for the Pepsi and M&Ms we'd be munching in the Jeep Cherokee we were sure to purchase upon leaving the theater. If you throw in the Anthony Hopkins bit and the "reminder roller coaster," the total running time for this taste of home was almost six minutes. Guess what the average network commercial break runs?

If I have a genre-specific weakness, it's for action movies. Despite my schooling in the classics and appreciation for foreign film, I am at heart an action-movie junkie. The trailers are all the same: a brief little voice-over intro, followed by guns, fists, breaking glass, and titles that explode from the screen bone-rumbling Dolby Digital whoosh. That's all it takes for me, really, and it's led me to see more bad movies than Joe Bob Briggs. Kiss of the Dragon had such a trailer, and while it falls far short of being late-night cable fodder, it fails in a number of ways to achieve any sort of action greatness.

The film opens with a fabulous fifteen minute set piece in which Jet Li lands in Paris, witnesses a murder, gets framed and fights his way through damn near every room (as well as several outer balconies) of a posh French hotel. The body count and Li both soar through the sequence, with enough hardware being flashed to fill several straight-to-video features.

Then the plot kicks in.

Li Is one of China's best cops (aren't they all?), sent to Paris to assist in a high-profile drug bust involving Chinese dignitaries. When the bust goes south (leading to the film's stunning opener), Li gets framed and must clear his good name (he's given the nickname Johnny by a corrupt French police inspector - played by Tcheky Karyo - who can't pronounce his real name) with the help of Bridget Fonda's hooker with a heart of gold. I would tell you more, but there isn't any, the narrative arc ending pretty much where it started.

The problem with Kiss of the Dragon is twofold. The first problem is that the "plot," as cliched as it is in its conception, is simply laughable in its execution. Li may be poetry in motion, but he's particularly dull when still (and he is still far too often in this film). Neither he nor Fonda can carry the narrative, which leaves it entirely up to Karyo, who proves himself less than worthy of the responsibility. The characters are about as uninteresting as they can be, and their motivations - admittedly not something that is very high on the list of an action movie's priorities - are particularly befuddling, and in some cases, even noticeably absent.

The second problem is the more damning. Aside from the hotel shoot-em-up that opens the film, and the Li vs. the twins hand-to-hand spectacular near the end, the action scenes are surprisingly tame. Li moves in ways that I've only dreamed about, and people die in various and sundry ways, but the wow factor is MIA, with some of the action sequences being so short and pointless that I found myself wondering why the filmmakers had even bothered.

Li is definitely capable of better, and hopefully he'll find something better soon. The movie's not a complete loss, but the film's 108 minute running time feels padded, a cardinal sin for any action picture.

The mother of a possessed little girl is talking to the recently arrived priest who is going to perform an exorcism:
Mother: "The girl won't even let me touch her."
Priest: "Sometimes you have to give them candy."

If the line didn't make you laugh, then nothing else in Scary Movie 2 will either, as that's about the highest point this lowest of lowbrow comedies ever achieves. If the line did make you laugh, then think of it as having gotten the best the movie has to offer for free. The line comes about five minutes into the film, and that's as good as it gets for its entire length.

The original Scary Movie, as gross and crude as it may have been, was also shockingly funny, the kind of thing where you find yourself laughing in spite of yourself. It was edgy and over-the-top, with enough random cinematic references to keep even the most knowledgeable film geek happy. Critics decried it as the bottom of the barrel, a one-hit wonder that in out-grossing the Farrellys left itself with nowhere to go. The sequel isn't trying to break new ground, being content to retrace the steps of its predecessor, and that's actually part of its problem.

The gags are about as current as they can be, featuring parodies of Hannibal and The Weakest Link, but they never go anywhere, as if the Wayans bros thought the references to be funny in themselves. Several gags from the original show up, almost completely unchanged, and the other gags are repeated so often that they eventually annoy more than amuse. The result is a film where the filmmakers seemed to have had more fun making it than I did watching it.

This isn't to say the film doesn't have moments of inspiration. James Woods is perfectly cast as the priest in the Exorcist parody that opens the film (rumor is that Brando was the filmmakers' first choice, one that I'm glad fell through), with Andy Richter playing off Woods beautifully as the exorcist's assistant. There is also an M:I2 bit, which is partially clever and partially painfully obvious, and a Poltergeist riff that is more clever in the way it gets around potential ratings problems than in anything inherent in the gag itself. The rest of the film is a random mess of film references and flat jokes that never amount to much.

Perhaps the first one pushed too far, leaving the second one nowhere to go. Or perhaps the sequel was too rushed, hastening to capitalize on the earlier film's surprise success. Either way, the film simply doesn't work. Fans of the first one are sure to be disappointed, while critics will simply say, "I told you so."

©2001 Ed Owens