September is supposed to be the time when the teen-demographic action films give way to the "classier" stuff, but now all we have Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever arriving in theaters just in time to beat out Jackie Chan's The Tuxedo and two Luc Besson-produced action films, Wasabi and The Transporter.
Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever moves a lot more gracefully than its title, surely the most ungainly and confusing name in years. Its plot is not always clear, but director "Kaos" keeps things moving with only occasional pauses.
The story goes something like this: The imperious intelligence-agency boss Gant (Gregg Henry) has his thugs grab his young son, Michael, from his wife, Rayne (Talisa Soto), for reasons that remain unclear throughout the film. Within moments, the boy is kidnapped again, this time by a ruthless, mysteriously hooded killing machine, whom we soon learn is Sever (Lucy Liu), a disaffected agent. Martin (Miguel Sandoval), a bureaucrat from a different agency, bullies Ecks (Antonio Banderas) into recovering the boy. Ecks is a former operative who has been on the skids for seven years, since his wife was killed. Ecks isn't interested until Martin explains that Ecks's wife is actually alive and that Sever knows where she is.
So Sever is being tracked by Ecks and by Gant's men. Luckily, she is tougher and more violent than all of them put together, dispatching dozens of trained law enforcement personnel and secret agents without breaking either stride or a sweat. By the midpoint, all sorts of hugely implausible twists are revealed, leading to a realignment of loyalties that we won't give away but that can be predicted by anyone who can read between the lines of the casting.
Thai filmmaker Wych Kaosayananda -- who makes his Hollywood debut here after directing 1998's Fha, a hit in his homeland -- has understandably shortened his name to Kaos. This name is referred to in the press notes as "a one-syllable moniker," meaning either that it is pronounced something like "kouse" rather than "chaos" (as one might have hoped and expected) or that someone at AOL Time Warner can't count to two.
Kaos has studied the John Woo playbook carefully -- using slow motion and spectacular shootouts and explosions -- but lacks the remarkable cutting that is a key part of Woo's work. Several elements are lifted so directly from Woo's Hard Boiled that they have to be considered homage (rather than theft, one hopes) more than mere influence. The shot of Banderas fleeing a series of explosions is almost identical to Chow Yun-Fat's scene near the end of Hard Boiled, and Sever's leaving little origami cranes brings to mind Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in that film; the entire Ecks/Sever relationship is a reprise of the interplay between Chow and Leung.
The plot can be really tough to follow, in part because Banderas's accent, rarely a problem in recent years, is surprisingly hard to understand at crucial moments, and also because it's tough to keep track of just who's working for whom... and why... and even where.
Finally, for once Vancouver is not used as a cheap stand-in for some American city but is "playing itself." The notion that Gant is the head of some secret "shadow government" brings guffaws: a Canadian shadow government?
In fact, the suspect press notes tell us that these people are all working for the U.S. government, that Ecks is former FBI, and that Gant runs the apparently real Defense Intelligence Agency. This makes one wonder why they're destroying downtown Vancouver. Don't the Canadians have anything to say about their antics? Or is this some kind of political allegory about the U.S. running roughshod over its more peaceful neighbors?
In addition to the plot problems, Ballistic suffers from what might be called xXx disease. Ecks survives such insane physical abuse so early in the film, with barely a scratch on his grizzled frame, that it verges on the supernatural, removing any possibility of jeopardy and, hence, of suspense.
Not that action fans will necessarily care. Kaos and his stunt people have contrived some very clever shtick and executed it with dazzling visuals. One shot of a sniper slowly falling from his perch leaves a particularly indelible impression.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.