Friday, April 30, 2010

Tribeca: "Clash"

Clash is constructed with an abundance of slick Hollywood style, all quick cuts and hot, saturated lighting and tough-guy sunglasses attitude. What’s different is that when the characters open their mouths to speak, Vietnamese comes out. Clash, from director Le Thanh Son, is a clever mash-up of John Woo-style gunplay and whiz-bang martial arts, whipped up at top speed with the help of rapid-fire editing and a pounding, pseudo-techno soundtrack. It has its moments, but it is one of those films that seems to benefit from its international pedigree; take off the subtitles, and you’ve got The Losers—and if you didn’t notice, The Losers didn’t play too many film festivals.

The picture begins with the assembly of the team; as expected, they each have exactly one character trait (smoothly professional, trigger-happy, bumblingly comic), and they are assigned nicknames that, in an apparent shout-out to Reservoir Dogs, one character complains about. (That same character makes a disparaging dialogue reference to “Hong Kong movies,” and since this scene is ripping off Res Dogs which itself ripped off said Hong Kong movies, the snake is truly eating its own tail here.) The team is led by Trinh (Thanh Van Ngo), aka “Phoenix,” and she’s the kind of tough babe that these movies love: frequently a better fighter than her male opponents, the fighting-a-girl awkwardness is mainly avoided because the men who take her on never get in a shot anyway. But there’s also the required scene where she has to doll herself up, so that the male members on her team can get a load of her slithering around and drop their jaws. One of them, Quan (Johnny Nguyen), ends up joining her for a tango, the cinematic shorthand for upcoming sex, the camera caressing her svelte red dress for a good three minutes of screen time so they can extract a tiny, negligible piece of information.

Anyhoo, Trinh is pulling these dangerous jobs to work off her debt to a ruthless gangster who rescued her from prostitution and took her daughter as collateral. The primary objective is the acquisition of a laptop computer, but that’s the movie’s MacGuffin; the plot’s primary function is to provide excuses for the multiple action sequences. Most of them work in about the same way: they begin as shoot-outs, and then when the bullets run out, the fists come out. (In one scene, well into the martial arts portion of the scene, another bad buy shows up with a machine gun, and our heroes seems pretty annoyed by his bad manners. Didn’t he know he missed the gun part?) The gunfights have a kinetic intensity, while the martial arts scenes that they bleed into, supplemented with knives and swords, are acrobatic and full of scrappy tension, what with the way Trinh keeps doing the move where she clenches her legs around some poor sap’s neck and flips him to the ground, the easier to snap him out.

Director Son know show to rev the picture’s motor—he doesn’t stick to the same tired tempo, the way too many American action flicks do. The effort is at least appreciated; the non-action scenes, however, are the weakest ones. In one, Trinh tells Quan her sad story, and she weeps as the operatic music swells and clobbers the scene. In another, we discover that our colorful villain has a thing for opera music. And so on. Some of these sequences (like the love scene set to a tender pop song) seem even more ridiculous in a foreign tongue—now we’re on the outside looking in, and this stuff looks mighty silly.

It probably shouldn’t matter—we’re mostly at Clash for the action, and it’s very good, even if the barnburner of a final showdown is nearly ruined by the cackling, bug-eyed acting of the villain and the corny black-and-white montage of previous tender moments. What matters is that it goes bang-bang and chop-chop real good and real fast. It’s a sturdy action picture, and it gets the job done. But let’s don’t go confusing it with art.

"Clash" screens April 30 at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

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