One well-timed explosion in a movie can be a knockout, but a hundred of them can be numbing. Proof of this is “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever.” Remote, non-involving and finally incomprehensible, chopsocky/blow-em-up U.S. debut of Thai helmer Wych Kaosayananda (credited except in the possessory line under the all-too-appropriate sobriquet of “Kaos”) will hardly light a candle let alone a firecracker under early fall B.O. Homevid fans will pick up the slack.
Project reps interest for Asiaphiles as the first case of a Thai filmmaker being recruited to lead a large-budget ($70 million estimated) Hollywood production. Kaos’ 1998 debut, “Fha,” is one of Thailand’s all-time B.O. champs, and its display of action staging drew trans-Pacific attention. First 10 minutes of nonstop action confirm reports that Alan McElroy’s script inspired a new videogame — thus reversing the trend of game-into-movie. Concerned mom Vinn (Talisa Soto) watches as the operatives of her husband Gant (Gregg Henry) yank their son Michael (Aidan Drummond) out of her car, followed by a silent, deadly high-kicking killer staging an explosive auto pileup. The killer reveals herself as Sever (Lucy Liu), whose frigidly solid facial expression alone informs that she means business.
An FBI task force headed by Julio Martin (Miguel Sandoval) — which has been hunting for Gant and his prototype of a deadly “assassination device” that can be injected inside an unsuspecting victim — unceremoniously pulls ex-agent Jeremiah Ecks (Antonio Banderas) back into the force. Of course, Ecks –like Sever — displays his own swift moves early on, so there’s no doubt that these two will go to war against each other before film ends.
The difference between the two, as the script all too literally spells out, is that Ecks is being forced into the hunt, while this is all personal for Sever, a former Defense Intelligence Agency agent whose only child was killed in a raid arranged by Gant.
Not that Ecks doesn’t have his own primitive backstory as well: Thinking his wife was killed in a car bombing, he’s told both by Martin and later by Sever that she’s alive and will be all his, once he concludes this little assignment.
Of course, the assignment involves dealing with Sever, who proves to be a one-woman army, detonating half of Vancouver (used here as the actual rather than stand-in setting) when she isn’t strafing the poor city with bullets.
The storyline, which in its best moments recalls Mad magazine’s sublime “Spy Vs. Spy” with all the humor excised, is upstaged by a parade of stunts, martial arts fighting, car chases and endless explosions. Action fanatics will argue over their favorite bit, from real cars hurtling over Banderas’ head to the slo-mo fetish shots of Liu whipping her long manes around to get off another shot.
Yet for all of the conspicuous intent to stage action set pieces mainly on the set and with a minimum of digitally aided post-production, pic fails to supplement this physical capacity with intense visual excitement.Of the starring duo, Liu comes off far better, if only because she shows fine instincts for playing a killer of extremely contained emotions and even fewer words. It’s tempting at moments to imagine that all of this nonsensical skullduggery is a nightmare inside the mind of Banderas’ dad character in “Spy Kids,” but Banderas — who mumbles or outright swallows much of his dialogue — manages only the most glum, perfunctory moods and expressions, making for ashallow hero. Once again, Henry and his sculptural visage of supreme evil is extremely easy to boo, but role reps yet another case of this superb actor being slotted into something far below his skill level. Free of his “Phantom Menace” and “X-Men” costumes and masks, Ray Park is just another Brit-accented bad guy.
The real stars on the production end are extremely active stunt coordinator Joel J. Kramer and fight choreographer Philip Tan, who arranges moves that are cool by Hollywood standards (with a few nods to “The Matrix”), but fairly commonplace by Asian ones. Julio Macat’s lensing is more about multiple camera coverage than aesthetics, and Don Davis’ thrash-guitar score is all about noise.