5 May 2000 | Kevin_Maness
the Unforgiven of Asian action films
When I saw Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, I left the theater feeling disappointed, and it wasn't until days after the movie that I began to appreciate the film. Now it's one of my favorites. What Eastwood did was to raise my expectation and appetite for violence--that satisfying kind of completely "justified" movie violence that has few, if any, real consequences for the perpetrators or for the viewers. What Eastwood did was to turn the tables on us as viewers and indict us in the act of anticipating and enjoying violence, which is inherently joyless.
Nowhere to Hide works in a similar fashion. What Unforgiven was to the American Western, Nowhere to Hide is for Asian action films. In the archetypal action flick, the bad guy does some really bad things (kills the hero's partner, family, friend; kills innocent people, especially women or children; bombs a building, killing civilians; etc.) which necessitates his death--we accept his murder as a moral obligation. Then, the detective/cop (a cool, witty, handsome, and dangerously graceful man; picture Chow Yun Fat) speedily tracks down the bad guy using superhuman powers of intuition and there are a number of bloody, explosion-filled confrontations leading up to a final one on one battle to the death--the hero emerges, injured but victorious.
Nowhere to Hide deflates the typical plot at every turn. The "hero," detective Woo, is a swaggering, slightly boorish thug with a comic flare and the inevitable soft spot under the rough exterior. His lumbering, shrug-shouldered, open-mouthed strut speaks volumes about his personality. But he must be a brilliant investigator. No, Woo's investigation takes months--a bumbling sequence of botched surveilance and raids gone bad. The good guys are clearly outclassed . . . badly. How many guns does he pack? Two? Four? No--only one, and it's a mace gun, shooting essentially ineffectual puffs of pepper spray. So, so he must be a martial arts expert. No, he fights clumsily, easily outclassed by any opponent with an ounce of training--he dives on people's backs, kicks anything he can reach, and beats people with bats, clubs, and pipes. He's much better when his opponent is in handcuffs or tied down somehow. Director Lee Myung-Se even uses slow motion (a la John Woo), but in his hands, the fights become not ballet but broad farce--more like the climactic shootout in What's Up, Tiger Lily than any scene from Hard-Boiled or the Wild Bunch. And before every major confrontation, Woo and his men have to find somewhere to urinate because they're so scared.
The end result is a darkly comic, visually engaging (something like Bladerunner), and fairly entertaining movie that takes most, if not all, of the glamor out of crime and crimefighting, and that, like Unforgiven, questions our love of a good fight. This is a good movie to see, but not if all you want is a glorious bloodbath.