Thursday, 22 May 2008

Belly of the Beast (2003)

I could easily make a gay joke here, but I'm going to
take the high road and make lots of fat jokes

Like performing brain surgery while someone vomits in your ear, working with Seagal is the ultimate test of skill for any action director. It takes a confident hand and careful choreography to make modern-day Seagal look like an action hero instead of an aging fat man. Not many directors are up to the task, but I think we've come the closest with Hong Kong action veteran Ching Siu-Tung. He handles it the best way possible, which is to say "Fuck it!" and throw out any notion of restraint or believability.

Seagal is, as usual, an ex-CIA operative. He has since retired and makes money on the side by sneaking his way into buildings (via stunt men) and stealing secret documents. This kind of stuff is child's play for Seagal and during his latest mission he even takes the time to grab a bottle of water from the fridge, though I was expecting a turkey leg. He's probably grateful when his daughter is kidnapped while backpacking through Thailand and he's got an excuse to get back into the action.

Yeah, that's right, Thailand. No dreary Eastern European locations here. While in Thailand many years ago on CIA business, his ex-partner Sunti (Byron Mann) accidentally shot a woman during a gun battle and as a consequence he quit and became a Buddhist monk. Now that Seagal has arrived, it's time for him to hang up his robe and trade his prayer beads for a 9mm.

Seagal also enlists the help of a former CIA colleague, a skanky nightclub owner named Fitch (Vincent Riotta), and if you can't tell he's the bad guy within the first few seconds then you might be the target audience for this film. While in the nightclub he saves a hot girl (Monica Lo) from some goons and afterwards she pants and drools over him like he's the studliest guy in Asia. I mean, to a Fatal Attraction level, it's really creepy. If she's got a thing for old, fat guys with frizzy ponytails she should try her local comic book store. The bad guys kill her roommate for no reason that I can discern, other than to make her vulnerable enough to sleep with Seagal. Thankfully the scene ends before it gets too explicit. Poor girl must have been crushed like a grape.

Ching Siu-Tung is an old hand at fight choreography, with some great action films under his belt (New Dragon Gate Inn, Swordman I and II, The Heroic Trio) so I was interested to see what he could pull off with a handicap like Seagal. The result is pretty hilarious. Requiring a stunt double for anything more than a brisk walk, Seagal basically just stands there while enemies flip and tumble around him, and every awkward blow of his sends a stuntman flying ten feet into the air. Occasionally a much thinner stunt double will step in to execute a flying kick.

Ching Siu-Tung also found a way around Seagal's policy of never getting hit, ever. Turns out that Seagal is vulnerable to magic, just like Superman. During the final battle the villian gains the upper hand by hiring the services of a voodoo priest. Luckily Seagal's got a whole temple of Buddhist monks on his side and their furious praying lets him defeat the bad guy. He finishes him off with a Tai-Chi blow that catapults him thirty feet across the room and into a glass cabinet. It's the most awesome thing I've ever seen. In another fight he tears the bra padding off a kung fu fighting transvestite, adding "I liked you better as a bitch!" Oh snap! So far Seagal has used the word "bitch" to refer to a fighter jet, a suitcase nuke and now a transvestite.

Aside from all the wire-fu, there's plenty of John Woo inspired gunfights featuring bottomless clips, the ubiquitous bullet-time effects, hailstorms of debris and body counts in the triple digits. It's pretty unconvincing when Seagal leaps through the air (I think there were half a dozen stuntmen carrying him) and fires a gun sixteen times before he hits the ground, lands on a rail cart and fires another sixteen rounds before reloading, but the end result is quite entertaining.

The story doesn't make much sense at all, and some goofy exposition added in post-production doesn't really help clarify things. There's also plot elements that seem to be dropped by the wayside, such as where a random woman on the street leads him into a back room and doffs her top, revealing her breasts and some sort of script written on her chest in invisible ink. Maybe it was Thai, maybe it was illegible English, but either way it's never explained and Seagal just nods sagely like it's perfectly normal.

During most of the film Seagal gets around in 4XL kimonos and Mao jackets from the Big & Tall Asian Collection, standing a good foot above the local populace. It's the most hilarious culture clash since Seagal wore a do-rag and spoke "street" slang in Half Past Dead. Saying that Seagal's performance is lousy would be redundant, instead it's a question of how much of the cast he manages to drag down with him. Byron Mann is good enough that I'm sad for him to be playing second fiddle to Seagal. Most of the Asian parts are played by Chinese people, with local Thai actors being relegated to play cardboard targets for Seagal.

Frankly, I kind of enjoyed this one. It's painfully dumb and derivative, but the sense of fun shines through. Most of Seagal's recent films have been joyless CIA thrillers so it's nice to see a film that realises how ridiculous it all is but doesn't see the need to wink at the audience about it either. Ideally I'd like to see a bunch of different directors provide their own unique take on the Seagaliverse, like one of those reality shows where they get a bunch of interior decorators together, give them each a shitty apartment and see what they can make of it. I think Direct-to-DVD provides an ideal venue for that kind of experimentation, but most producers would rather cut their balls off than take a chance on something like that. It's much easier to churn out the same CIA-centric stinkers again and again, but a man can dream, can't he? A man can dream.

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