Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever Review
Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever is a public act of self-mutilation; an 87 minute cry for help which comes both from the film itself and, in a broader sense, from a genre in crisis. It demonstrates the paucity of ideas which is affecting modern Hollywood action movies and the increasing reliance on a kind of ersatz stylisation to keep the audience awake in between increasingly desperate bouts of plot exposition. It's no surprise that the film isn't good but it's more alarming that it should be quite so incoherent and aggressively mediocre.
I won't waste your time, or mine, in relating too much of the plot, although I'm not entirely sure I could if I wanted to. Basically, Ecks (Banderas) and Sever (Liu) are highly paid professional 'operatives' who used to be good mates but now find themselves competing against each other. Ecks lost his wife and son to a slimy no-good big-time operator called Gant (Henry), who used the little brat as a tool for carrying a brand new semi-biological weapon through customs. This is a clever little micro-device which is injected into the victim and can be triggered remotely, causing instant death. Gant's marriage has fallen apart, so he arranges for Sever to capture the child. Ecks is hired to get the device and, incidentally, to get rid of Sever. But Sever has been ordered to take out Ecks despite actually wanting to take out Gant in revenge for the death of her child. Then they get together to take out Gant. Erm... then lots of things blow up. There's a less than deeply moving flashback sequence. Lucy Liu livens things up by wearing skin-tight leather and Banderas adopts a three day beard and seems to be trying to pretend that he's Giancarlo Giannini.
As other critics have pointed out, none of this stands up to close scrutiny. Why invest millions into a micro-assassination device when you could simply use a sniper rifle or a dart dipped in cyanide ? Why is the film called "Ecks vs Sever" when it's actually about Ecks and Sever vs. Gant ? How has Ecks, supposedly a brilliant secret agent, so easily fooled into thinking his wife is dead ? Why did he ever trust someone like Gant who says 'Hello' in such a creepy manner that it makes you wonder how he would play Richard III ? Why does Sever inhabit a brick-lined warehouse full of cages instead of buying a nice little semi somewhere in the country which might actually be reasonably secure ? Why are American government agencies involved in operations in Vancouver ? Why doesn't the film have a discernible sense of humour ? The film isn't especially confusing, to be honest, but it seems confusing because the narrative proceeds in fits and starts; chunks of exposition being thrown in as pauses in between loud action set-pieces.
Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu give reasonable performances, the former unable to be totally uninteresting despite the script and the latter sensibly remaining silent for most of the time. Gregg Henry hams it up amusingly as the bad guy and Ray Park is so embarrassing as his henchman that you understand why he's rarely been let loose with dialogue before. But the raison d'être of the film is to provide an excuse for 'Kaos' - real name Wych Kaosayananda - to blow things up and, if that's the particular bag you're into daddy-o, this is done with a reasonably degree of competence. There's not a great deal of imagination in the staging of these pyrotechnics, with the exception of a nice crane shot as we watch a flunky fall onto the hood of a car, but big bangs (stop giggling at the back) have a therapeutic value of their own. It's hard not to enjoy seeing half of Vancouver go up in flames in a manner which suggests that the post-9/11 sensitivity over such things hasn't reached the ears of the people who made this film. However, much of the action looks like the action in most other contemporary action movies; slow-motion incorporated intermittently, people running with a huge orange backdrop of flames, bullets raining on defenceless buildings and cars.
Which brings me to the most interesting aspect of the film, which is the way in which it is symptomatic of a crisis in the American action genre. If we accept that most Hollywood action movies are derived in some way from a combination of Seven Samurai, Rio Bravo and North By Northwest, it's hard not to conclude that the simplicity of structure and clean, clear lines of narrative and action which made those films so good has been totally lost. The first culprit, it seems to me, is a misunderstanding of the purpose of editing. When Sam Peckinpah used fast, almost subliminal editing in The Wild Bunch he was making points about our perceptions of violence and exactly what it means for someone to die. Nowadays, fast cuts are used simply to try and make the action scenes more interesting, even if it means editing them to death. When someone dies - and hundreds of people die in this film - you don't feel even a twinge of regret, you simply wait for the next explosion. If you watch one of the action scenes in Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever then it's almost impossible to work out who is doing what to whom, let alone why they're doing it. Compare this with a classic action set-piece in Hitchcock's North By Northwest where the shots are held for much longer and the editing has a graceful rhythm - I'm thinking of the crop dusting scene - then you'll see what I mean. One can say the same about slow motion, which is used nowadays without much thought of why it's there. John Woo used it brilliantly in his Asian films in order to advance the characterisation and make you think about what you're seeing but in his later work it's there simply because it's expected of him. The over-cranked flashback scene here seems to be shot like that simply because it's set in the past and is a bit sad.
The second big problem is that narrative in action movies has become almost arbitrary. If you look at Rio Bravo - which, with its carefully structured plot, 'buddy' relationships and combination of comedy and action, is hugely influential on modern American genre filmmaking - then you can see why each scene is there. Every moment advances either the narrative or our understanding of the characters. In recent genre films, narrative is basically a simple thread designed to link together the set-pieces and no matter how good those are - some of the action moments in, for example, Charlie's Angels Full Throttle are breathtakingly well shot - it's a simple matter of undernourishment. The plot of Ballistic is barely sufficient to link the scenes together and doesn't make any sense on any level. Bigger has come to equate with better and there's no irony any more. At the end of The Gauntlet, made way back in 1977, when Clint Eastwood has a squad of policemen rain bullets onto a bus, it's meant to be so over the top that its funny. Now, that sort of scene is routinely presented without any intentional comedy. In Ballistic and most other contemporary Hollywood action movies, no-one seems to be asking why the action is there in the first place, except that it's supposedly about pleasing the audience. One could blame the low expectations of the audience I suppose but that's not fair when they get so little choice. When a genuinely intelligent action film comes along, such as Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, its slow pace tends to alienate the audiences who flock to see the likes of Mission Impossible 2 and it gets derided in some quarters as 'boring' because it dares to spend time with the characters before putting them into action. That film found its audience but more through the arthouses than through the multiplexes.
I also want to make a distinction between style and stylisation. If a filmmaker has style, it's in his bones and he can never quite lose it. He may take ideas from other films but he uses them to create a vision which is unique. On the other hand, any director can use stylisation to make their film look as if its got some originality to it. The style in Ballistic:Ecks Vs Sever is entirely fabricated, fashioned out of other films and there's not a single moment where 'Kaos' does anything except what you expect. The film is a perfect example of why Hollywood action movies are becoming virtually unwatchable while action cinema from Asia has come to seem so fresh and vital in the past few years. Ideas are in desperately short supply and there are few filmmakers working in the American genre who have enough talent to hide the mediocrity which they're peddling. Giving $70 million to a Thai director with one acclaimed film to his credit might have seemed like a good idea to addled Warner Bros. executives, desperately hoping to have unearthed the next John Woo. Having lost nearly half their investment, they must be wondering where they went wrong - but actually, it's obvious what's wrong. Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever has virtually nothing to recommend it. It's a loud, pounding collection of empty action sequences, scored to thudding music which is like muzak for those with deadened senses. It's put together with bare competence and it's not exactly boring but it's bloated and idiotic and it makes you feel dumb for watching it.
This film was released in the USA to general apathy and terrible notices. Warners haven't bothered to release it to cinemas in the UK so this is a DVD premiere for Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever. Not much of interest on the disc but, technically speaking, it's very impressive.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced, the film looks fantastic. The transfer is reference quality and a pleasure to look at. The colours are sensational, the blacks are deep and true and there is no artifacting or grain to be seen. This is another triumph from Warners who are generally very reliable when it comes to recent releases.
The soundtrack is very, very loud Dolby Digital 5.1. It's an eventful and exciting track which makes copious use of the surround channels and the subwoofer. Again, reference quality stuff but it does make you pine for something quiet, refined and, above all, subtle. This track is a bit like being hit over the head with a rolling pin for 87 minutes. Some people might like this of course, and I can't think of an excuse not to give it a 10, but please don't make me listen to it again.
The only extra features are the original trailer - a Voiceover Man classic which makes as little sense as the film - some cast and crew filmographies and the HBO First Look Special. This is appropriately titled in so far as no-one wanted to take a second look, and is standard stuff with interviews from Kaos, Banderas and Lui along with lots of clips. They all seem very serious about the film which might account for the peculiarly joyless tone of the finished product.
The disc features English subtitles for the film but not the special features. There are 26 chapter stops.
Some writers have been generous to this movie, suggesting that it's 90 minutes of mindless fun. Indeed, it's certainly not the worst movie of 2002 as has been suggested. But personally I like my fun to treat me like an adult rather than a salivating idiot who can't cope with anything if it's not interrupted by regular explosions. The DVD presents the film very well indeed but you have to wonder whether it was really worth the effort. If you buy this, then don't say I didn't warn you.