The world is too messed up to obsess over bad movies as much as we do; isn’t it time we obsess over good ones? In his monthly column You Have To See This, Chuck Winters reaches into his pile of flawed, forgotten, or just plain fascinating gems to figure out what makes them tick and what makes them matter.
“Flawed, forgotten, or just plain fascinating.” You know, I’ve been using this space to highlight underrated movies by showing you hidden depths, historical significances, and other curious lessons to be learned from them. But you know what, that’s just one side of film appreciation. There are countless films out there with absolutely nothing going on under the surface that nonetheless get by on their own wacky charms. You don’t hear about them often because, well, they’re hard to write about, and everyone’s mileage with these films varies. Now this movie came out in April of 1998, but owing to certain Hollywood traditions, I tend to think August is the perfect month for films like this: cheap, mindless action flicks with quirks that simultaneously hold it back and push it forward.
So let’s talk about The Big Hit, an action comedy made for $12 million that I, as an impressionable thirteen-year-old, watched every day for a week when it first came out on video and several times after that before I inevitably grew up. Whether that makes me a shitty thirteen-year-old or one that was way ahead of the curve, I can never be a hundred percent sure of…but let’s be honest, more than likely it was the former.
The Big Hit centers on Melvin Smiley (Mark Wahlberg), a hitman who works for Paris (Avery Brooks), a ruthless but otherwise noble crime lord. Melvin’s the put-upon middle manager of the crew he runs with; he does all the work, but he lets the other members, particularly the flashy Cisco (Lou Diamond Phillips doing a John Leguizamo impression), take the credit. You see, Melvin’s not good with interpersonal conflict because he can’t stand the thought of people not liking him, and he’s been chugging Maalox to treat the ulcer that acts up whenever the people in his life start to shit on him. You can argue that a hitman should be way above such concerns, but I submit that he’s a hitman whose name is fucking Melvin, so…
Anyway, Cisco is masterminding a kidnapping off of Paris’ books, and he invites Melvin to join in along with Crunch (Bokeem Woodbine) and Gump (Robin Dunne). Melvin, in financial straits thanks to the actions of his awful mistress (Lela Rochon) and his Jewish Princess stereotype of a fiancée (Christina Applegate), reluctantly takes the job. Their target is Keiko Nishi (China Chow), daughter of electronics magnate Jiro Nishi (Sab Shimono). The plan is to grab her from her university and ransom her off for a million dollars, but unfortunately for these idiots, Jiro isn’t good with money. In fact, he just blew every last dollar he had on a foray into Hollywood, the poster for which you can kinda see in the background here:
I’m sad that a movie called Taste the Golden Spray failed too, Jiro.
More distressingly, it turns out that Jiro is a friend of Paris’, and the young woman they’ve kidnapped is Paris’ goddaughter. Paris turns to Cisco to get the girl back, and Cisco immediately frames Melvin to cover his own ass. In one wild day, Melvin has to deal with that, his stereotypical fiancée’s stereotypical parents (Lainie Kazan and Elliot Gould), the chopped-up body his friend Vince (Antonio Sabàto, Jr., whose presence is otherwise inexplicable) is making him hold for the weekend for some reason, and worst of all, the video store employee who wants his copy of King Kong Lives back.
If you’ve never heard of this before, I’m assuming you have questions, like “What?” and probably “How?” Well, among the film’s list of producers, you’ll find Wesley Snipes and—more pressingly—John Woo & Terence Chang. Woo’s name was all over the trailer, seen here:
Misleading as it might be to say “From the team that brought you Broken Arrow and Face/Off,” the Hong Kong style that Woo popularized was all over this one for sure. Kirk Wong, who previously co-directed Jackie Chan’s Police Story, takes the reins here; as you can see from the trailer, the action is wild if clearly done on the cheap, and the film runs at a brisk 90 minutes, getting in and out before you can ruminate too much on it. It’s the script from Ben Ramsey that gives the movie its character, though. If you’ve heard of Ramsey, it’s probably because you know he wrote the script for Dragonball: Evolution, a film so bad he eventually publicly apologized for it last year. If you haven’t, that’s understandable because he only has one other produced screenplay—the 2001 DTV action-drama Love & a Bullet, which he directed—and hasn’t screened any major work since 2009 (he also directed, but did not write, Blood and Bone with Michael Jai White). Now, having seen Love & a Bullet, I’m not sure him being in the woods is some great loss for cinema, but I’ll give him this: he packed this story with some fun idiosyncrasies.
How do I describe the tone of this movie? It’s certainly violent in a disconcertingly casual way; in fact, thinking about it, if I had a 13-year-old, I’m not sure I’d let HIM see it. Death is treated with all the gravity of a punch in the gut, a joke in some instances. To kidnap Keiko, Cisco kills her limo driver (whom Keiko knew, even if she shows no concern over his absence) and stashes his body in the trunk; Melvin takes his place. When he picks Keiko up, her dipshit rich kid boyfriend—another broad stereotype, but frankly everyone’s playing in broad stereotypes here—insists on riding with her. When he tries to rape her, Melvin pulls over and shoots him in the head.
Take a look at what happens next:
There’s absolutely no sense that Keiko just saw these kidnappers whack her boyfriend, even if he was a shithead. She just goes right to roasting their nuts with barely any worry about how much longer she may have to live. I can’t say that she’s confronting a terrifying situation with gallows humor; there’s not even a sense that she’s considering the context of what just happened. Instead, she’s just rolling with it like it was nothing. The film attempts to explain this away second-hand by characterizing Keiko as an extremely intelligent girl who’s into the adrenaline rush of her situation, but it feels more like she kind of has to act this way for the sake of the love story that’s about to develop. (Oh, did I not mention that Keiko is Melvin’s love interest? Wahlberg and Chow are only three years apart, but the optics of an engaged hitman with a sidepiece—even one as young as Wahlberg and as insecure as Melvin—romancing a college girl who wears a school uniform are, uh, a lot.)
Yet, assuming a healthy appreciation for the divide between movies and life on the viewer’s part, this oddly carefree attitude of Keiko’s is in service to a tone that I actually love. Everything is over the top and not always in good taste, and its relationship to how things work in reality is tenuous at best. But for a certain kind of viewer, it plays great as a big, stylish cartoon. (If you’re a gamer, Saints Row is a strong point of comparison, though that series was a lot more consistent—and perhaps imaginative—with its characterization than this movie is.)
The key is Kirk Wong’s apparent understanding of the story’s inherent absurdity. It’s not quite accurate to say that he plays it straight and lets the situation speak for itself. While there are several times he leaves a gag understated, for the most part Wong leans into it, clearly not ashamed to be making a comedy. At the center of the movie is a bravura screwball sequence set to “The World Is New” by Save Ferris that sees Melvin trying to juggle a determined-to-escape Keiko and the chopped-up body he’s holding away from the prying eyes of his family-to-be and the neighbor’s nosy dog, barely staying literal steps ahead of them. It’s a thrilling comic setpiece that’s enhanced by some surprisingly clever satire of suburban life (the sequence kicks off with the entire neighborhood mowing their lawns in sync at the start of the day), bolstering the contrast at the center of Melvin’s character that drives this movie’s humor.
The Big Hit is stuffed with broad comic bits like that. Occasionally they’re lazy as hell, like pretty much anything involving Melvin’s fiancée and her parents (a shame, since Applegate, Kazan, and Gould are all so much better than that material). Sometimes they’re quite inspired, though, like the fantastic running gag of Crunch only just discovering the joys of masturbation (he’d been getting laid since he was 10); other times, they’re too goofy not to work, such as Gump and his Tracebuster, and the Tracebuster-buster that’s made to counter anyone trying to use a Tracebuster on him. (In a nice subtle touch, this is all made from Nishi tech, which foreshadows how well this is going to go.) On the other hand, however, Wong uses his experience directing action and drama to make the comedy that much funnier. Take a look at this scene, where Cisco is first called into Paris’ office to discuss the kidnapping that just took place.
Fans of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine know that Avery Brooks, who (coincidentally) played Captain Benjamin Sisko on that show, was the kind of actor who, in his prime, would eat your fucking lunch if you were dumb enough to let him. Brooks gives Paris a gravitas and intelligence that lesser filmmakers would have found unnecessary, and in this scene, he’s terrifying. He’s waving around a golf club like he’s about to beat Cisco to death with it, even though he has no reason to suspect that he’s behind anything. Yet even though it all feels deliberate (as opposed to the actions of an emotional, unhinged madman), Brooks somehow makes that feel even scarier than the unpredictable alternative. That, in turn, makes Lou Diamond Phillips even funnier; his reactions to Paris’ monologue are bordering on legendary (“I’D BUST SOME CAPS!”), leading all the way up to the amazing face he makes at the end of the scene that just buttons it all up perfectly.
Of course the action scenes are just wonderful. Most of them are bunched up into the last twenty minutes of the movie as the various tensions of the film hit critical mass, but they reach a level of thrills and proficiency that many action comedies just don’t bother with. Now that’s not to say that it’s John Wick before John Wick; among other issues, there are arguments to be made about the wonky geography that’s occasionally at play (Cisco chasing Melvin through a forest that happens to be right next to a fairly-developed suburban downtown area comes to mind). But they’re exciting as hell, packed with gags subtle (the multiple times Melvin appears to kill Cisco in that third act string of action sequences, only for him to come back even crazier than before) and overt (a showdown over the King Kong Lives tape that Melvin just has to return before he and Keiko can disappear together), and frankly, they’re just plain charming.
That’s the word I keep coming back to with this movie; charming. This is the kind of movie that pairs perfectly with beer, chicken wings, and a group of friends to join in as you drunkenly groan and laugh at it. Along the way, though, you’ll probably find yourself enjoying the ride in the way you were intended to enjoy it. There’s no injustice here. There’s no hidden depth that everyone missed the first time around. There’s just a highly flawed, highly entertaining movie that’s absolutely worth the gamble, the kind that gives you a chance to breathe and loosen up.
If you know of any movies that you think deserve to be covered in You Have To See This, feel free to tweet your suggestions to @DivisionPost!