Damage control

This article is about two Oriental-oriented movies which Mark Wahlberg did to sort of atone for his past sins (violently targeting Vietnamese men out of racial prejudice). These movies were necessary to make, otherwise he would never stand a chance of being listed in the A list. Because of his adolescent racism towards black people, the first movie had a black associate. The structure of this article (along with the cover) has the second movie come first because there is less rare info. Also, there is something to be said about narrating a success story where the success is followed by a narrative involving the humble beginnings.

Most of the info (which came from the première issue of Thunder) is not readily accessible elsewhere. Because there is less info on The Corruptor (1999) than The Big Hit (1996), the former will be dissected first. The director, James Foley, admitted that he wasn’t already a fan of H.K. movies before he met the real star of the film (not the artist formerly known as Marky Mark): “I watched The Killer and Hard-Boiled with a grain of salt.”

As far as New Line was concerned, Chow Yun-Fat was attached to the project when the script was sent to Foley, but the director needed to see him first. Since a phone conversation wouldn’t work, Foley flew to Hong Kong where Chow had been shooting a commercial: “I have this theory where I can’t work with any actor, particularly a movie star, if I don’t feel free enough to put my finger in their ear if I want to. If someone is a movie star, it has nothing to do with the scene. I mean the character doesn’t know he is a movie star.”

It took just a few minutes to realize that Chow was a real person, not just an actor: “It’s the kind of thing that you share that goes beyond verbalization. It’s like — Do you get the joke? He got the joke, and I got his joke, so it was mission accomplished. I wanted to do this.”

According to Foley, Chow nailed down 85% of his dialogue in production and the remainder was looped in Tokyo. A test screening audience gave Chow an 89% rating for the lead, where a 62% is average. Foley liked him because: “He had some ideas about doing things in certain scenes that, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if they would work or not. But I thought, let’s try it and I can always cover myself by doing one without it. To my surprise, every single thing he did that was kind of a piece of business, the test audience responded every single time! Whether it was a little thing like putting his finger on his cheek, a little turn of a phrase or a little movement, it really worked. I have to admit that I was surprised at the intensity of the reaction, which was like an emotionally connected acknowledgement of what he was doing. That’s why he’s called the Chinese Cary Grant because he’s like the old-fashioned movie star who winks to the audience, not in the scene, but like a connection that I know you, you know me.”

In 1998, test screening feedback had indicated that The Corruptor is extremely violent with lots of sex and nudity. At least one person had commented that it should be rated NC-17. Ben Stiller, one of Foley’s good friends, even said it was the most violent film that he had ever seen. When it was released in Hong Kong cinemas, it earned H.K.$ 14,370,420 from February 11 to March 31 of 1999.

Foley told Clyde Gentry III for Volume I, issue III (October): “Very little has been cut, but the film has not gone to the ratings board yet. No one pressured me to make it violent, sexual or anything else. I just did exactly what I wanted. I have a great relationship with New Line where I just felt completely free. We came in on budget and on schedule, which really helps, but nobody said anything. I guess it’s violent, but to me it’s the kind of violence that is not exploitative, but more to the point and realistic. It’s all very personal I think, because I think of The Godfather where James Caan gets gunned down in the toll-booth on the bridge. There’s a lot of bullets and a lot of blood, but people don’t remember The Godfather for being gruesome.”

Part II (not the sequel to The Godfather): “If I see a movie where a guy says he’s going to pull out a knife and slit your face, I’ll be hiding under the seats and feel disgusted. But if someone blows somebody up with an uzi and their brains are splattered, it doesn’t bother me. My shoot-outs are shot more realistically in the streets. It’s not fetishistic, MTV, glossy images like in Chow’s previous U.S. movie. Mine are more grainy, documentary, hand-held with real bullets and real blood inside the squibs. I’m against, not for any moral reasons, the brightly lit, full colour, static, locked-down shots of blood spurting out at people that look as if it’s filmed like a blossoming flower. It’s not the way that violence seems to happen. The bits of violence that I’ve seen in my real life — and not that much, I admit are always sloppy, dirty and archaic. It’s just kind of upsetting for the lack of control. The last thing I wanted to do was film violence with storyboarded, crisp, clean shots.”

Part III: “It’s pretty bloody and I’m really proud of it just as a piece of cinema. It’s structured in a way that has a real cinematic quotient to it. Let me tell ya, pal! I’ll give you a quote from John Woo. He said it was the second best car chase after The French Connection. He said it’s too long, it’s outrageous, it’s crazy and don’t cut a frame. I love that guy! When I first saw the scenes in front of an audience and they really responded, I thought – isn’t this wonderful that it started with two forty-something-year-old guys on the floor of an office, drinking beers and playing with toy cars.”

Wahlberg had already worked with Foley on Fear. Foley says: “It’s very gratifying to work with him because you rarely get to work with someone twice. There was something on Fear that I’m definitely proud of. Talk about getting the joke or sticking your finger in his ear, you can say anything to him. He’s the least neurotic American actor who I’ve ever worked with.”

Foley has a plot twist: “The screenwriter’s father was actually a cop in Little Italy. It’s based partly on a true story, on a case that happened about seven or eight years ago with Triads in New York.”

The director of The Big Hit, Kirk Wong, left H.K. in 1995 and it took him a year-long hiatus to find the right project. Roger Garcia, one of the producers, and Kirk went through over a hundred scripts for action movies before settling on this one to launch their career in North America. Kirk rejected Double Team (which was directed by Tsui Hark) and other Hollywood bombs before accepting it. Warren Zide, a top Hollywood literary manager turned producer, recognized a good thing when he read Ben Ramsey’s screenplay: “His talent was evident, and this was a movie that I really wanted to see. The casting director really had a vision for the movie and did a terrific job putting together a distinctive and eclectic group of actors.”

Zide passed the script to Amen Ra, a company owned by Wesley Snipes. The black actor was impressed. Amen’s Victor McGauley, a co-producer on The Big Hit, said: “The story was fresh, and Wesley saw the possibilities immediately.”

The script then landed on the desk of Terence Chang, longtime producer and partner of John Woo. Terence immediately thought of his friends, Kirk and Roger, for the project. Terence said: “The mix of comedy and action made it a perfect vehicle for Kirk to establish himself in North America. He had never done a comedy before and I thought that this would be a challenge for him. The four stars have their own following, are immensely talented, and share an amazing rapport.”

Kirk agreed: “The script was very original, and that’s a quality that I need for my work. It is a Saturday night special where you can just go with your friends, relax and have a good time. It provided the basis for some good action pieces, but at the same time, there’s a tongue-in-cheek kind of attitude, too. The script had space for action sequences, but there were no specifics. Obviously, I enjoy doing action sequences, but action means nothing if we don’t have decent characters. They’re equally important to me. I’m inspired by the actors. When I cast someone, it’s not only because they fit the role, but also because they bring something more to the role. They give the character depth and insight.”

Everyone involved agreed that the script demanded a group of hip, fresh, exciting actors. There were additional casting specifications for the motley group of hitmen as Garcia pointed out: “We had to get a cast which looked comfortable together and appeared to have known each other for years for the type of chemistry we wanted on screen. Coming from Hong Kong to Hollywood, where the talent pool is much larger, gave us a wide spectrum of choices. We had to make some difficult casting decisions – no Chinese. One of Kirk’s strengths as a director is the representation of men as individuals and as a group, bonded through a common goal or job. He’s also got a cool sense of humour for this type of material.”

For 18 months, Lou played the King of Siam in the Broadway revival of The King and I. Barely a week after he’d completed his 500th and final performance, Lou Diamond Phillips was winging it off to Toronto to film The Big Hit“When I was sent the script, nobody told me it was a comedy. I started reading it as a straight action thriller. A few pages in, I started chuckling and pretty soon I was howling out loud. I knew I had to do it. I was in a comedy troupe in college and no one has ever offered me an all-out comedy like this before.”

Lou, who plays Cisco, describes the rest of the quartet: “The Odd Squad – an ensemble cast for the nineties. Mark, as Mel, is sweet, and the killing machine in the group. Bokeem Woodbine’s character, Crunch, actually defies description. He’s the muscle of the group. Antonio, as Vince, will really surprise his followers.”

As in Hong Kong, the script acted as a loosely structured blueprint giving the actors a freedom to create their characters beyond the page. For example, Lou suggested that Cisco should have tattoos and a gold-framed tooth. During the rehearsal process prior to the ten week shoot in Toronto, Lou along with Wahlberg and Wong went to a Santana concert where a band member did a cool gesture involving both bands. After the concert, Lou asked his permission to use it.

Columbia/TriStar kicked in an additional 5 million dollars for new scenes with the four male leads after initial production was complete, because tests showed that the quartet was in demand. Lou said: “The relationship between Mel & Cisco comes out of the chemistry that Mark and I have. A lot of the action and dialogue on screen are the result of rehearsals and improvisation.”

Kirk attests: “I knew it when I saw them. The chemistry was there.”

When noting cultural differences, Kirk quickly affirmed: “In Hong Kong, we would just have a couple of people in our meetings while here we have everyone including producers, marketing and other executives. The ideas had an easier time to flourish with this many people involved. If you put an experienced Hong Kong action director on a picture, you expect him to deliver a fresh, innovative and exciting rhythm of action and stunts. So we tried to stretch the idea of what an action scene can be in a Hollywood film.”

Wong sought the help of Lau Chi-Ho, stunt coordinator, whose work with Woo on The Killer and Bullet in the Head had given him acclaim among keen observers of H.K. cinema. Together, they mapped out the action choreography by looking over the sets and finding palatable solutions. Their most original action sequence for this film has to be an exciting gun battle along a stairwell using bungee ropes. Roger was also aware of the cultural clash: “There’s a certain style in Hong Kong filmmaking that is perhaps more informal than here. Obviously there are things which we have to very conscious of in terms of rules and regulations – about explosions, car chases, stunt scenes – that we have to get used to. It’s a matter of trying to design action scenes which can fit into the structures that exist in Hollywood.”

Before the film had commenced shooting, Mark worked out with Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. In one of the most difficult scenes, Mark has to jump out of an exploding building into a pool of water. Although CGI and camera tricks were used to enhance the effect, the actor takes the would-be fatal plunge sans double. Kirk said: “I was quite impressed with Mark’s physicality. He moved even better than the stunt double.”

Mark added: “Once Kirk found out that I was capable of handling the physical stuff, I started getting calls over the weekend from him wondering if I wanted to jump off a building.”

Lou compliments the director and more: “Kirk has taken action to another level so that a simple car chase becomes lyrical, funny and psychotic. The Hong Kong stuntmen are indestructible. I think that they have rubber bones. It’s very exciting.”

According to Zide, Mark and Lou approached the film’s demanding action scenes with an enthusiasm that stemmed from a mutual desire to achieve the best shot: “Mark doesn’t want the audience to see a close-up of him and then a wide shot of someone who looks like him doing the stunt. Lou felt the same way. They take it as far as the stunt-people will allow them to in terms of safety.”

Mark felt compelled to say: “The acting gets overlooked in most action films. But Kirk’s really in tune with the acting, and the action was actually secondary. When I read the script, the comedy aspect really got me. When I saw Kirk’s movie with Jackie Chan, I saw it was more about the acting than the action. That was impressive to me. The funny thing about The Big Hit is that it cost about half of what it cost to make Boogie Nights. That is a huge surprise to most people because it looks so big, like a real expensive film. Wong did an amazing job. All credit to him.”

The costume designer, Margaret M. Mohr, said: “Kirk trained as an fashion designer early in his career, so his sense of color is dead-on. From Cisco’s Gauthier-gone-mad outfits and Mort’s bingo-playing get-up to the neighborhood guys in their aloha shirts and shorts, Kirk was very clear that the costumes should add to the overall visual look of the film.”

Lou delivers a professional prelude to a personal anecdote: “One look at my character and audiences will know they’re meant to laugh. Just in case there’s any doubt, I eat up every piece of scenery that the special-effects guys don’t blow up. I saw my character as the love child of Dennis Rodman and Rosie Perez, or John Leguizamo on crack cocaine. My wife loved the transformation so much, she pleaded with me to come in character to the delivery room for the birth of our daughters. I’d love to have obliged, but I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t have made it past security.”

Of course, no PC makeover can be complete without showmance i.e. a romance which only exists for marketing purchases e.g. Andrew Garfield dumping Shannon Woodward to be the celebrity chaperone of Emma Stone. In Wahlberg’s case, people were convinced that he was no longer racist when he was paired up with China Chow for the gossip columns. The co-star said: “I mean, I’m just a student who finished school, and I was very insecure about the way I looked, and I said – Don’t put me through this, please. When can I go home? I told them that I didn’t want to be disrespectful, but I don’t really know how to do this, and I have this boyfriend, and I wanted to meet him in Hawaii.”

North and East of China Chow (the public side): “I just went in on it really to see what it would be like to audition and not to get the part. There was no way I really thought that was even a  possibility. It just kind of happened. The hard thing was acting like I didn’t like getting kidnapped by the four of them!”

South and West of China Chow (the private side): “I’ll talk about the movie until I’m blue in the face but my private life I’m so protective of! This all started – the voice coach, the trainer, the therapist – since the movie.”

Returning to one of the men mentioned in the first paragraph about this movie, Roger Garcia had this to say: “I was in America, and some friends from Hong Kong were thinking of making the move to Hollywood, particularly Kirk (of whom I knew). I had actually done a little bit of work on one film that he made called Health Warning, which was Hong Kong’s answer to Blade Runner, made for like a hundredth of the budget. Kirk contacted me because I was here. We partnered up then started to do the rounds in Los Angeles with help from Terence Chang and John Woo, whom we knew from years ago. Eventually, we ended up doing The Big Hit for TriStar. I certainly learned a lot, and it changed my ideas about both the film industry and film criticism. All film critics should work on a Hollywood movie at some point in their career because you understand much better the studio system, the development process, the function of a script, how casting is done, and why certain decisions are made.”

Before the movie was released, Kirk was attached to a Universal project called Blades. About a stealth helicopter, it was pitched as a modernized Blue Thunder. Since The Big Hit wasn’t the big hit for Kirk, Blades never materialized – neither did a remake of The Red Circle. The ironic nature of the box office disappointment is twofold. This was the sort of multi-genre movie that was popularized in H.K. but something which he would never do back home. The second half of the irony is that the gritty crime dramas that he made back home were the sort of movies which were palatable to a Western audience. His career would’ve been better had he been the one to direct The Corruptor. Both Wahlberg movies were filmed in Toronto.


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