Ballistic Kiss (1998)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-03-10
Early in “Ballistic Kiss” Annie Wu’s roommate asks her “Why do you listen to this trash?” referring to a talk show. When written and shot it was little more than a throwaway line, emphasizing that the police inspector played by Wu was intrigued with the character Cat who calls the talk show every night. But when the movie was put together and screened as a whole it must have occurred to someone that even after only a few minutes the audience might be asking the same question—why were they watching this, if not trash certainly an ineptly made film.

The script for “Ballistic Kill could have been constructed by following a checklist for recent cop/assassin movies: Beautiful police officer and hired killer become obsessed with each other from afar; assassin decides it is time to hang up his Glock with the ninety shot magazine and retire on the millions he has earned; the assassin is a hyper-efficient automaton who always completes his mission but is stunted emotionally; the police officer is sexually alluring or at least very attractive; when finally meet while dodging lead (earlier chance connections don’t count) their sexual attraction is more powerful than the bullets aimed at them...etc. etc. Which is not to say the Bey Logan stole his paycheck while cobbling together this list of clichés he might have ordered from Acme Script Builders, only that there isn’t anything particularly creative original about it.

Originality isn’t necessary for cinematic success--Kwan Tak-Hing starred in a series of 99 films as Wong Fei-Hong, films that remain influential on martial arts movies. A script doesn’t have to be creative to be effective—in many genres the plot exists only to fill time between and to introduce the next musical number, gunfight, slasher appearance or werewolf transformation. However if a director wants to transcend genre filmmaking he shouldn’t chose a script that is bolted together with leftover boilerplate. Since Donnie Yen was involved in every aspect of this movie as producer, director and star he is ultimately responsible for almost everything about it. It begins with the script.

The cinematography is self-indulgent and boring. Many scenes are shot in slow motion—very S-L-O-W motion that makes no sense in context. Donnie Yen walks through the streets to a gangster’s lair very slowly. Even the glass elevator with Donnie looking pensively at the city below is slow. Things slow to a snail’s pace when he walks into the combination headquarters and orgy room where his target resides. He then mesmerizes the entire crew—the hookers, the bodyguards, the triad underlings—by suddenly moving like Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler while on methamphetamine. Then he shoots everyone.

The lighting alternates between bathing the actors in a sickly green or a sickly blue to the extent that plain old Technicolor is a welcome change. There a lot of flashy cuts, a lot of odd camera angles—not odd in the sense of unusual or creative but odd in the sense of “what the hell is he doing that for?” The scene of a roomful of police officers discussing Cat’s most recent hit looks and sounds like too many other cop movies and television shows, with the camera constantly moving, quick cuts away from someone while he is still speaking, lines overlapping each other.

Predictably enough Cat falls for Carrie the beautiful police officer who is leading the investigation regarding who is killing off all the Triad leaders in Hong Kong. She lives across the street from him and spends enough time with her blinds open or on the balcony in her silk pajamas that he is able to get an eyeful. It is impossible to tell whether the attraction would have been quite as strong if she had been a certified public accountant or a software sales rep but probably not. It seems to be a rarely broken rule that hired killers fall for cops and cops fall for hired killers.

There is some psychobabble through which to wade. Cat kills people because his father used to beat him regularly even though he misses the old man. He thinks that beneath the thin veneer of civilization the world is full of murders, thieves and rapists—so, apparently, killing for hire isn’t so bad after all. Carrie the cop seems to agree with him at least after he kidnaps her at gunpoint.

One image that occurs so often that a viewer might think it was product placement is one in which a bad guy uses the body of a comrade or innocent bystander while under fire. Even the head of the police unit sent to arrest Cat tells some of his men to jump in front of him when the shooting starts. It doesn’t seem to mean anything—or if it does it escapes me—so that these particular bullet riddled corpses may be just for shock value. But something that happens so regularly ceases to shock.

The low point of the movie is reached when Cat, while meeting with his agent/controller wonders aloud just what his career is all about and if he has accomplished anything. While contract killers may be as subject to mid-life crises and existential angst as anyone else, it seems that if a career of killing people isn’t its own justification the killer wouldn’t last for long. This is directorial self-indulgence at its worst.

“Ballistic Kiss” is almost redeemed by the power and creativity of its action scenes. Putting a gun in Donnie Yen’s hands is less interesting than having him beat his adversaries to death but he still carries things off very convincingly. There are only a couple of hand to hand combat scenes—one in which a gang thought they had cornered him on a rooftop only to get kicked, pummeled and clubbed into submission. Yen is an enormously talented cinematic fighter.

The gunfight between him and Yu Rong-Guong is a masterpiece. It is simple—Cat has his pistols, the other guy has several guns including a shotgun with an inexhaustible supply of ammunition. It takes place in a small room that gets smaller—the two of them are firing at each other from behind pieces of furniture that each uses as a moving shield to get closer to the other. They also use mirrors, table tops, chairs and other furnishings attempting to distract each other or to gain a clear shot. When they as close as they can get they wind up changing sides in a smooth, violent and very credible set of moves. Cat is able to escape from this claustrophobic killing space far enough to get to a suitcase full of weapons which he has trouble opening. Yu Rong-Guong advances slowly and seemingly inexorably, shotgun leading the way, until Cat gets the case open and the confrontation ends as it must. This was a riveting piece of work by all involved and as suspenseful, brutal and ultimately satisfying as any gun battle I have seen on film.

Five points for action, none for anything else
Reviewer Score: 5