Action, made exotic

Times Staff Writer

Nicolas CAGE didn’t wind up in Bangkok by accident. As the Oscar-winning actor explains it, there were reasons both personal and professional that compelled him to change gears after the mega-dollar success of the family-friendly action-adventure “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” and travel across the globe in pursuit of a new career iteration. Not least was the impulse to shake up his image by appearing in a foreign-made film.

“On my path of film acting, I’ve been trying to think more and more internationally, trying to have a global mind,” Cage said. “That means going to foreign countries and working with filmmakers who have a special point of view that will reinvent me in an alternative light.”

Enter the Pang brothers, the Hong Kong-born action-horror hotshots responsible for the 2003 Chinese movie hit “The Eye.” A franchise-spawning horror movie about a woman whose corneal transplant causes her to see dead people, it was remade as a Jessica Alba vehicle earlier this year. Executives at the production company Blue Star Pictures had been courting the writer-director siblings Danny and Oxide Pang to remake their 1999 Thai-language hit, “Bangkok Dangerous,” for an American audience. And that’s how Cage came to sign on to star in the ultra-violent action thriller (which is being distributed by Lionsgate and arrives in multiplexes Friday) as Joe, an assassin of few words who travels to Thailand’s capital to carry out a series of contract killings.


The character falls under Bangkok’s exotic thrall, drawn into a tentative romance with a comely deaf-mute pharmacy assistant. And he begins to question his isolated existence just as the mobsters who ordered his services decide to put Joe in the crosshairs -- a predicament that may bring to mind for some viewers the oh-so-sage warning in “One Night in Bangkok,” Murray Head’s hit 1984 electro-pop single: “One night in Bangkok and the tough guys crumble/Can’t be too careful with your company.”

The importing business

With its unusual, hybridized pedigree, “Bangkok Dangerous” arrives as the latest in a long line of Asian-movie remakes -- a genre that seemed to peak around 2006. Dating all the way back to 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven,” a Western adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s classic action-drama “The Seven Samurai,” the genre has some notable hits: the 1998 update of “Godzilla” took in more than $136 million at the box office; Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” (a remake of the Hong Kong potboiler “Infernal Affairs”) grossed $132 million in theaters and won four Oscars, including best picture. “The Ring,” an adaptation of the J-horror film of the same name, earned $129 million during its theatrical run and spawned a successful sequel. But most Asian remakes turn out to be modest box-office performers, like this year’s “Shutter,” the 2004 Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy “Shall We Dance” and 2006’s “Pulse,” written by horror auteur Wes Craven -- films that performed solidly but unremarkably.

Reached by phone in Thailand, where the Pang brothers are based, Oxide Pang said in halting English that he felt “fortunate” to have American backers interested in retooling his films for Western viewers -- even if he feels the final product bears only a passing resemblance to the 1999 original. “In eight years, we had two movies remade by Hollywood!” exclaimed Pang. “So many directors make a lot of films and don’t have any chance to remake a movie in Hollywood. On that, we feel good.”

“But the original version of ‘Bangkok Dangerous’ is old already,” he added. “We feel like this is a new story. It’s not a remake. It’s brand new.”

A distinct Thai flavor

Shot on location with a Thai crew, “Bangkok Dangerous” delivers a strong sense of place -- gunbattles are intercut with shots of floating lotus blooms; a high-octane boat and motorcycle chase unfolds in a picturesque “floating market”; and Thailand’s national symbol, the elephant, provides a leitmotif. But the filmmakers hope the movie will stand out to moviegoers by offering a kind of cultural immersion in an alternative filmic universe.

“It is an Asian movie, not an American one,” said Cage, who also produced “Bangkok Dangerous.” “We didn’t want to make any concessions to the American audience and let the Pangs do anything they could to break from the American moviemaking formula. I have no idea how it is going to connect with viewers. I place this one under the category of ‘experimental.’ It’s one of the most unusual films I have made.”

Added producer William Sherak: “We loved the idea of doing a Thai movie with an American star as opposed to making an American movie in Bangkok. It’s a Thai film; you can feel the streets, the city as a whole and get a sense of what Thailand as a country is like.”

It may be overstatement, however, to say the movie is totally uncompromising toward its intended audience. In the original “Bangkok Dangerous,” the lonely hit man’s sense of solitude is emphasized by certain physical limitations: the character, played by Pawalit Mongkolpisit, is a deaf-mute. But according to Oxide Pang, the silent assassin wasn’t going to make the cut with Cage attached.

“Producers say, ‘It’s better to have him talk. [We] don’t want to have a superstar in a Thai film not talk,’ ” he explained.

Although the number of Asian-movie remakes has recently diminished (this year’s “One Missed Call” notwithstanding), industry observers say the genre isn’t going the way of the dodo anytime soon.

“Remakes of Asian cinema have kind of slowed down, and ‘Bangkok Dangerous’ is the first one of those in a while,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office-tracking firm Media by Numbers. “But that doesn’t mean the genre is waning. Asian cinema is another content stream, just like TV shows, novels, comic books and remakes of American movies. It’s another field to till to get new ideas. It’s not going away.”

For Cage, the decision to remake “Bangkok Dangerous” was also predicated on a certain “philosophical” connection to his off-camera existence.

“In my own life, I married a Korean lady,” Cage said, “and I know the enchantment, bewilderment and isolation of trying to fit into a culture and not knowing how. All of those feelings are organically rolled into ‘Bangkok Dangerous.’ ”