Striving to achieve the moral complexity, political resonance and powerful characterizations that prevailed in such 1970s policiers as “The French Connection” and “Serpico,” James Foley’s “The Corrupter” reps a peculiar combination of actioner and morality tale, one in which the two genres do not always coalesce. In his second American vehicle, Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat gives a stronger performance than he did in “The Replacement Killers,” but his screen presence doesn’t begin to approximate the smooth, cool work for John Woo and others that vaulted him to international fame. Opening on a competitive weekend for action fare, New Line release faces a marketing challenge for its well-mounted production, which should score mid-range numbers.
This is the first major Hollywood movie to explore Chinatown gang wars since Michael Cimino’s “The Year of the Dragon” (1985) and, as scripted by Robert Pucci, this solidly researched drama about organized crime provides a fuller and less sleazy view of a volatile enclave. Interestingly, material dovetails with Foley’s own 15-year exploration of various father-son relationships, both biological and surrogate, beginning with “Reckless” and “At Close Range” and continuing through the thriller “Fear,” which featured Mark Wahlberg.
In “The Corruptor,” Wahlberg also plays an outsider, Danny Wallace, a white cop assigned to a Chinese-dominated NYPD precinct headed by the highly respected Nick Chen (Chow). As is often the case in such stories, initially there’s tension between Wallace and the Asians, who poke fun at his “yellow fever” and apparent attraction to Chinese food and women. Predictably, Wallace goes out of his way to prove his commitment to the job and understanding of the post’s unique problems.
Gradually it’s disclosed that the Chinese-born Chen’s rise through the ranks is partly due to his close ties with a bunch of Chinese “businessmen,” called the Triads. A star officer of the Asian Gang Unit, Chen sees to it that peace reigns in the perpetually unstable neighborhood.
Indeed, a new war has recently erupted between the Triads and the Fukienese Dragons, who are much younger and more brutally violent than their rivals. Chinatown’s uncertain truce is interrupted with a series of store explosions and murders of prostitutes. Unlike previous movies of this kind, the “commodity” that precipitates gang wars here is not so much drugs as the labor of illegal immigrants.
Pic’s setting may be new, but the core of the hard-hitting tale is not, centering on honor, deception, betrayal and violence. The idealistic Wallace takes a while to see the corruption of some of his superiors — the narrative is structured as his basic training and moral awakening. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that, as an actioner, “The Corruptor” is a character-driven movie, with several plot twists and turns involving the interactions among the gangs, cops, FBI and Internal Affairs.
The most involving segments are the buddy scenes between Chen and Wallace, who gradually learn to respect each other, and those be-tween Wallace and his father (the always excellent Brian Cox), a former cop burdened with a gambling habit and huge debts. Wallace and Chen establish a psychological bond that goes beyond their jobs, though the script makes sure to link them to women and hookers, lest their bonding be misperceived as too intimate.
Engaging as story’s various conflicts are, they are contained in an actioner, which requires, by definition, chase and action set pieces. But this is Foley’s first action picture, and it shows: Except for an extended chase sequence, which is adequately shot in Chinatown’s streets, the big action scenes are not, by today’s standards, excitingly staged or filmed, particularly the climactic shootout, set on a boat full of civilians. Pic’s periodic shootouts are largely extraneous to the dramatic proceedings.
On the plus side, there’s good chemistry between the two lead thesps, with Chow’s good looks and screen presence compensating for his lack of total comfort with English dialogue. Playing quite a demanding role, Wahlberg is decent, though he doesn’t show any indication that he’s ready to assume solo leads.
Pic’s production values are impressive, relying on Juan Ruiz-Anchia’s crisp lensing of Chinatown (and great aerial shots of New York), Howard E. Smith’s elegantly kinetic editing, David Brisbin’s colorfully authentic production design and an evocative score from the versatile Carter Burwell.