Soft Boiled

Ballistic may remind you of John Woo, without the coherence.

Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever
September is supposed to be when the teen-demographic action films give way to "classier" stuff, but now we have Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever arriving in theaters just in time to beat out Jackie Chan's The Tuxedo and two Luc Besson-produced action films.

Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever moves a lot more gracefully than its title does, though its plot isn't always clear. The story goes something like this: The imperious intelligence agency boss Gant (Gregg Henry) has his thugs grab his young son, Michael, from his wife, Rayne (Talisa Soto), for reasons that start out unclear and never get all that much clearer. Within moments, the boy is kidnapped again, this time by a ruthless, hooded killing machine, whom we soon learn to be Sever (Lucy Liu), a disaffected agent. Martin (Miguel Sandoval), a bureaucrat from a different agency, bullies Ecks (Antonio Banderas) into recovering the boy. Ecks is a former operative who has been on the skids for seven years, ever since his wife was apparently killed. He isn't interested until Martin explains that Ecks's wife is actually still alive and that Sever knows where she is.

So Sever is being tracked by both Ecks and Gant's men. Luckily she is tougher and more violent than all of them put together, dispatching dozens of trained law-enforcement personnel and secret agents without breaking either stride or a sweat. By the midpoint, all sorts of hugely implausible twists are revealed, leading to a realignment of loyalties that we won't give away but can be predicted by anyone who can read between the lines.

Thai filmmaker Wych Kaosayananda has understandably shortened his name to Kaos. Highly acclaimed in his native country, he has studied the John Woo playbook carefully, with lots of slow motion and spectacular shootouts and explosions, but without the remarkable cutting that is a key part of Woo's work. There are several elements lifted so directly from Woo's Hard Boiled that they have to be considered homage (rather than theft, one hopes) more than mere influence.

The plot can be really tough to follow, in part because Banderas's accent, rarely a problem in recent years, is surprisingly hard to understand at crucial moments, and partly because it's tough to keep track of just who's working for whom . . . and why . . . and even where: For once, Vancouver is used not as a cheaper stand-in for some American city, but as itself. The notion that Gant is the head of some secret "shadow government" brings guffaws: a Canadian shadow government?

In fact, the suspect press notes tell us that these people are all working for the U.S. government, that Ecks is former FBI, and Gant runs the apparently real Defense Intelligence Agency, which makes one wonder why they're running around destroying downtown Vancouver.

In addition to the plot problems, Ballistic suffers from what might be called XXX disease: that is, Ecks survives such insane physical abuse so early in the film that it verges on the supernatural, removing any possibility of jeopardy and suspense. Not that action fans will necessarily care: Kaos and his stunt people have contrived some very clever shtick and executed it with dazzling visuals.

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