'Clash'

Pretty people kicking major ass is a fairly solid formula for success.

Pretty people kicking major ass is a fairly solid formula for success, and in Vietnam it’s helped make “Clash” the year’s top-grossing film so far. Starring martial-arts idol Johnny Tri Nguyen, this briskly paced actioner is enhanced by debut helmer Le Thanh Son’s musicvid stylings, a soapy storyline and some fabulous fighting. Despite a potentially broad aud, however, “Clash” may not be exotic enough for the specialty market, although clever marketing could find it a niche.

We meet the gorgeous Trinh — codename Phoenix (Ngo Thanh Van) — as she’s putting together an Asian A-Team to steal a hard drive containing codes to Vietnam’s first and only satellite, the VINASAT.1. In a “Reservoir Dogs”-style recruitment drive, she assembles her gang of specialists, principally Quan (Nguyen), whom she dubs Tiger, and who proves to be her only equal in either fighting or thinking. Rounding out the team are Ox (Hieu Hien), Snake (Lam Minh Thang), Cang (Lam Minh Thang) and Hawk (Tran The Vinh). Like Trinh, Hawk was sold into prostitution in Cambodia before being rescued by criminal mastermind Hac Long, aka Black Dragon (Hoang Phuc), who is now bankrolling Trinh’s operation. Just in case Trinh has second thoughts, Black Dragon also has taken her baby hostage.

Cang, as it turns out, is a dirty double-crosser who gets several of his team members killed and steals the coveted hard drive. And so begins a triangular chase for the treasure, and a profoundly two-way street of romance between Tiger and Trinh. Gentlepeople, start your engines.

The imperiled-baby aspect of the narrative provides plenty of poignancy, abetted by the syrupy strings that accompany Trinh’s flashbacks to even unhappier times (an aria from “La Boheme” makes an appearance), while the injustices committed against Vietnamese youth by Black Dragon push the righteous-indignation button. And the often electrifying fight scenes provide a vicarious spleen-venting for an audience at the end of its emotional rope.

At its best, “Clash” suggests the work of Johnnie To, but it’s really about ‘tude. Nguyen and Ngo both seem ready to walk out of the Southeast Asian jungle and into a Chanel commercial. Everyone wears sunglasses; everyone strikes poses. Ham Tran’s editing is calculated to keep things twitchy, as well as to suggest action that we haven’t seen take place, but might have. Like most of its characters, “Clash” is running a little con of its own, but the upshot is very entertaining and a must-see for martial-arts freaks, who’ll dig the Vietnamese fighting style, which is inspired more by boxing/wrestling than by karate.

Production values are uneven.

Clash

Vietnam

Production

Produced by Jimmy Nghiem Pham, Johnny Tri Nguyen, Veronica Ngo. Executive producers, Rich Long Nguyen, Tawny Nguyen, Ryan Hoang Hubris, Alex Vo, Carson Vo. Co-producers, Jenni Trang Le, Nguyen Thanh Long. Directed by Le Thanh Son. Screenplay, Johnny Nguyen, Le, Ho Quang Hung.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Dominic Pereira; editor, Ham Tran; music, Christopher Wong; production designer, La Quy Tung. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Center, New York, April 10, 2010. (In Tribeca Film Festival -- Cinemania; Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.) Running time: 100 MIN. Vietnamese, French dialogue

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