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September 6, 2008

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Movie Review – Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

by HELEN GEIB

Bangkok Dangerous is a suspenseful and emotionally involving thriller about a professional assassin who accepts a job from a Thai crime boss to kill four men in Bangkok. The Pang Brothers, Oxide and Danny, co-directed from a script adapted from their original screenplay. The film’s visual style is substance over flash, eschewing pyrotechnics in favor of sustained tension and dramatic interest. The assured restraint hit me with a shock of pleasure.

This is a Hollywood remake of the Pang Brothers’ own earlier work, a fact that at this point inevitably creates an expectation of artistic failure that is in this case, unmet. The story is a well-crafted variation on the universal (in cinema) tale of the career criminal who courts his own destruction when he rediscovers his capacity for the softer human emotions. The production has the industry advantages of a big budget and an American star (Nicolas Cage). But while the Pangs might easily have transplanted the story to an American city, they wisely chose to retain the Bangkok setting and make the film on their home ground. Bangkok Dangerous has a sense of place that is exceptionally rare in an American film set in a foreign country. This is not a tourist’s survey, but an insider’s street level evocation.

The hitman meets two people in Bangkok who become his guides to the city and to renewed feeling. One is a lovely young deaf woman named Fon (Hong Kong actress Charlie Young) whom he meets in a drugstore; he is immediately smitten as she, presaging her effect on his life, helps him tend to a physical wound. Their chaste romance is conducted through expressions and gestures. His craving to communicate with her impels him to an unwonted demonstrativeness that encourages and symbolizes his emotional reawakening.

His other guide is a young local man named Kong (Shahkrit Yamnarm). He hires Kong to act as his courier in order to preserve his anonymity from his employers. Up to that point he is only following his standard procedure, but then he becomes Kong’s mentor, teaching him the rudiments of self-defense and marksmanship. Kong is a willing pupil because he hero-worships the assassin as a strong, capable man who kills seemingly untouchable criminals. The hitman rationalizes his actions with the idea that the boy reminds him of himself, but that is at most a partial truth. In actuality, he feels a paternal love for Kong that complements his romantic love for Fon.

Bangkok Dangerous belongs to the class of films exemplified by John Woo’s The Killer that develop themes of spiritual crisis and re-birth through the medium of a sometimes violent genre film. Fon and Kong are good people. It is impossible for the hitman to care for them and continue living in the same way. The film’s climax is the collision of that impossibility with the equal impossibility of escaping the life he has so painstakingly built.

3 1/2 stars


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. James
    Sep 7 2008

    Helen, had you seen the original version of this film, also by the Pang brothers? I’m curious to see both, but have been hesitant to commit to this one until I see the original. Given this glowing review, however, maybe I should abandon this rule for now and check this out before it leaves theatres.

    Also, I think the Pang brothers did an English language horror movie a couple of years back, but I can’t for the life of me remember the name of it.

  2. Helen
    Sep 8 2008

    I have not seen the original, though I would certainly like to now. You are right about this being the Pangs’ second Hollywood film and I’ve modified my review accordingly. I checked their credits on the imdb and learned they co-directed a ghost story called The Messengers (2007) that didn’t ring any bells with me even after I read the cast list and plot description. The higher profile The Eye was a Hollywood re-make of another of their Asian hits, but they don’t seem to have been involved in that production.

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