In Ridley Scott’s “G.I. Jane,” Demi Moore’s character, in training for the Navy SEALs as the first woman recruit, asks a medic why the guys join. Explains the medic: “To blow [stuff] up.” It would be hard to find a more perfect expression of the primitive pleasure involved with watching movies such as the new action movie “Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever” than that. For years, one of my preferred ends to an exasperating day has been to rent a Joel Silver or Jerry Bruckheimer movie, then settle back to watch stuff blow up. There’s no defense for movies like these, but neither do they warrant apology; they’re irresistibly watchable, like car wrecks.
Big noisy nonsense, “Ballistic” stars Lucy Liu and Antonio Banderas as operatives who wear their world-weariness with all the insouciance of a couple of Milanese runway models. Directed by Thai newcomer Kaos, who was born Wych Kaosayananda, and written by the less flamboyantly named Alan McElroy, the film brings the two stars together by way of all the usual rogue-agent complications and a doozy of a plot twist: Liu’s character, Sever, is a member of something called the Orphan Class: Chinese girls who, instead of being adopted by nice American families, have been raised to become assassins by the Department Intelligence Agency, an outfit that really exists and presumably did not vet the script.
The agents are supposed to be sworn enemies but seem on friendly enough terms to have coordinated their matching wardrobes of black on black, with a few accents of color. As with Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix,” Liu also wears sunglasses with her overcoat, a confusing combination when it comes to the weather, perhaps, but one that secures her place in a long movie tradition of killers whose appearance is as cool as their attitude. To that end, Liu and Banderas both look great when running, shooting guns, sailing through the air, shooting guns, riding his and her motorcycles, activities that essentially sum up most of the action and plot, and, along with the usual foreign-market concerns, help explain why neither actor does much talking.
As if to complement her minimalist dialogue, Liu brandishes exactly two expressions as the flyweight terminator--impassive and slightly less than impassive, the latter of which she reserves for wielding flamethrowers and involves a soft furrowing between her well-manicured eyebrows. When not furrowing, running or shooting, she generally can be seen firmly standing her ground while posed against the backlit sewer steam that wafts through every frame. She’s as ferocious as a Chihuahua (a really mean Chihuahua), which complements Banderas, who brings his customary affability to the role of a former FBI agent in mourning for his dead wife. Even (or maybe especially when) throwing punches at Liu, he comes across as a nice guy.
As with many contemporary action movie directors, Kaos, whose only other feature was a 1998 film called “Fha,” has made a study of John Woo, James Cameron and the oeuvres of producer-auteurs Silver and Bruckheimer (at least before the latter started on the road to mid-cult respectability). “Ballistic” is a generic blur of metallic blue and fireball orange set to the contrapuntal sounds of throbbing techno and eardrum-puncturing noise. There’s nothing terribly original to any of it, outside of some impressively choreographed stunt work, specifically a chase sequence that culminates with two police cars pirouetting through the air with the sort of grace and precision you associate with Russian skaters not Chevy Caprices.
If low-end kicks were all that “Ballistic” had to offer, then there would be nothing left to say; but watching this action movie had an unexpected effect. Fairly early on in the film, there’s a frenetic sequence in which Sever almost single-handedly lays waste to several downtown urban blocks while fending off fleets of heavily armed agents and police. During the orchestrated mayhem, automobiles crash, civilians run screaming, and in one disconcertingly lifelike stunt, a sharpshooter falls to his death from a rooftop with the camera chasing right after him. However simulated, the relentlessness of Liu’s blank purpose and the verisimilitude of the destruction shaded the whole episode far darker than the filmmakers probably imagined or wanted.
This isn’t a moral judgment; it’s just an observation about how life has a way of changing even our more trivial distractions.
MPAA rating: R, for strong violence. Times guidelines: nonstop gunfire, intensely realistic stunts but very little simulated bloodshed.
“Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever”
Antonio Banderas...Jeremiah Ecks
Lucy Liu...Agent Sever
Gregg Henry...Robert Gant
Ray Parker...Agent A.J. Ross
Talisa Soto...Rayne Gant
A Franchise Pictures presentation of a Chris Lee/Franchise Pictures production, in association with MHF Erste Academy Film GmbH & Co. Produktions KG, released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Director Kaos. Screenwriter Alan McElroy. Producers Elie Samaha, Chris Lee and Kaos. Director of photography Julio Macat. Editors Jay Cassidy and Caroline Ross. Costumes Magali Guidasci. Music Don Davis. Production designer Doug Higgins. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
In general release.