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Guilty Pleasures

On the Movie Channel, a pair of John Woo revenge tragedies offer up an irresistible mix of kick-boxing, melodrama -- and, oddly, dance.

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There is really no excuse for enjoyingchopsocky any more than any other form of movie mayhem -- I mean, High Noon with bare feet! Kung Fu Manchu! -- but some of us will always go that extra mile to rationalize a guilty pleasure. In the case of John Woo, from whom this week we get a premium-cable piggyback of Once a Thief: The Director's Cut and Once a Thief: Family Business (Saturday, July 18; 7:05 to 10 p.m.; the Movie Channel), I've gone all the way to Botswana and Norman Rush's novel Mating (1991). Mating was deeply serious about capitalism, socialism, utopian matriarchy, and ostrich farming, but it also had a number of irreverent things to say on the subject of the fascists next door in South Africa, including this: "Mark my words, someday somebody will trace the influence of kung fu movies on the liberation struggle and it will be substantial. Because kung fu movies, which are in fact trash, nevertheless teach over and over again an important lesson: you've got to get revenge. Christianity says you don't, the reverse, and for years the educated black leadership went with that. But here comes something else, a set of brilliant how-to illustrations, that says to young men Join into groups, use your bare hands against the enemy . . . avenge your brothers."

You've got to get revenge -- whether you are Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, David Carradine, or even the Karate Kid. And kicking an evil dynast (or a four-fingered yakuza or a Hong Kong triadditive) in the head is infinitely more satisfying than dropping a bomb on him. The grudge is personal, and so must be the punishment. Besides which, you get to wear pajamas and quote Lao-tzu. Sometimes the martial arts get mixed up with martial law, as in Walker, Texas Ranger; or the merchandising of toys for children, as in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; or outlaw-biker-culture fashion statements, like cyberpunk and tattoos; or magazine ads for home-study courses in self-empowerment. There is often a homoerotic component, as in secret societies at Yale. And sometimes, like Highlanders or samurai, you get to play with swords. Dressing up is important. But unlike the comic-book muscleheads, who are only into the superheroics for the money, the publicity, and the chance to run around in public in their underwear, the martial artist can pretend to belong to a mystic tradition, like a Hoplite or Berserker or Taoist warrior-sage, while his real psychic business is simply Getting Even.

On this symbolic flapdoodle, John Woo superimposes modern dance. It's as if Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl had brainstormed with Bob Fosse to combine Kabuki and Fritz Lang's robot women. To the acrobatics of Getting Even, Woo brings trapeze art in freeze-frame tableaux. Even in a mainstream Woozy like Face/Off, there's a built-in trampoline. And even on the small screen, his flying bodies never scatter; they deploy. It's a kind of courting, like coiled cobras. I won't pretend either of these Once a Thiefs is A Better Tomorrow. You may already have seen the first -- on Showtime -- minus some twenty minutes the director obviously likes enough to restore for posterity. And the second, while much funnier, isn't even directed by Woo, though he executive-produced and his palm-print slap is on each scene. Nor are the plots any less ludicrous than we expect from chopsocky.

Mac (Ivan Sergei), orphaned as usual at an early age, and Li Ann (Sandrine Holt), sold as usual into child prostitution by her mother, are both adopted into the triadic Hong Kong family of Godfather Tang (Robert Ito), who treats them like his own son (Michael Wong) -- that is, as criminal accomplices in everything from dealing weapons to stealing Rembrandts. Ivan, no smarter here than in The Opposite of Sex, will of course fall in love with Sandrine. And so, of course, will Michael, to whom she is awarded by Godfather Ito, who enjoys being a boss after so many years as Jack Klugman's lab assistant on Quincy. Many broken windows, much kick-boxing, and one humongous explosion later, Ivan and Sandrine end up working for a shadowy government agency in, of all places, Vancouver, where Sandrine, thinking Ivan dead, is already engaged to somebody else, neurotic ex-cop Victor (Nicholas Lea). Michael also shows up in Canada, ostensibly to recycle Tang funny money before the Red Chinese take over Hong Kong but actually to Get Even.

So much for Once a Thief, Part I. In Part II, Family Business, Godfather Ito himself shows up in Vancouver to kill Ivan and Sandrine, who will instead save him from kidnappers belonging to a local crime family run by Valley Girl teenybopper Vicky Pratt -- a scary amalgam of Alicia Silverstone, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed. Meanwhile, Nicholas is mixed up with yet a third crime family in surprising Vancouver -- the traditionally Italian Orsinis. And Jennifer Dale, their campy "director" at the "shadowy government agency" that will remind you of The Pretender and La Femme Nikita, is playing deep games with all their ditzy heads. Perhaps in a promised Part III, they'll explain the stalking of a Buddhist nun.

Never mind. What matters is the hoedown in a Hong Kong warehouse full of Uzis, the slaphappiness in a Vancouver pool hall, the dockside shootout, and a circus act in a swimming pool full of inflatable animals; slo-mo and smash-cut and vengeful danse macabre. Woo is an Institute of Advanced Studies on bodies in motion. Once you're done with the amateur clumpings of black helicopters, bombed federal buildings, ice caps, sand dunes, and alien corn in the X-Files film, or with Chicken Little and the Dirty Dozen in Armageddon, you might try staying home for mindless pleasure.


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